Maxine Eskenazi, researcher at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute: 

“The Best About the Dual Degree Program Is Supervising People Who Can Do Great Things” 

MEskenazi 2014  Maxine Eskenazi, researcher at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute, is co-advising Rui Correia and Pedro Mota, two dual degree Ph.D. candidates in Language Technologies, at Instituto Superior Técnico of the Universidade de Lisboa (IST-UL) and CMU, in the scope of the CMU Portugal Program.
Rui Correia, co-advised by Maxine Eskenazi and Nuno Mamede, researcher at IST-UL/INESC ID, is trying to automatically detect meta-discourse markers in talks. “When you give a talk, you do things that organize your speech, which are called meta-discourse items,” Maxine Eskenazi explains. How to introduce a talk, how to give examples, how to engage the audience are all meta-discourse items. In order to find those markers, Rui Correia is using TED talks in Portuguese and in English and “eventually the goal is to develop a system that could teach people how to give presentations,” she adds.  Rui Correia 2010 2011 
 Pedro Mota 2012  Pedro Mota, also co-advised by Maxine Eskenazi, jointly with Luísa Coheur, researcher at IST-UL/INESC-ID, is focusing his research on Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs, which are large online courses that may have up to 100 thousand people registered. “When you have these massive courses, the problem is knowing how to give individual attention to students, how they can be followed so that we are sure that they are understanding,” the CMU researcher explains. With that motivation, together with other researchers, Pedro Mota is building a virtual teaching assistant, which will monitor the playback of a lecture and stop it at certain teaching points to “talk to the student and try to see if the student understood the message that the professor was trying to get across,” she clarifies. For that to be possible, the teacher will sign certain teaching points and the system will search for other materials in the literature, besides the materials that the teacher provided, in order to augment the information made available to the student. “This will be extremely useful in the future as more and more courses will be online,” she believes. 

REAP PT – A Project “That Blossomed Into Something Great” 

An interesting outcome mentioned by Maxine Eskenazi was REAP-PT, the system developed within CMU Portugal, with the collaboration of IST-UL, INESC-ID, Universidade do Algarve, Universidade de Lisboa, and CMU. The goal of the project was to provide students with individualized texts, a particularly useful capability in language-teaching classes, where students often have diverse reading levels. The texts provided by the system come in the form of authentic documents from the Web, and by tracking and assessing the students’ knowledge, REAP-PT finds documents that meet their individualized criteria. 

“The REAP project was something that Jamie Callan, professor at CMU, and I started. The idea was to develop a system that would go on the web and look for documents that students could read, and it was supposed to find documents that were at the level of the student,” the researcher explains. Furthermore, the documents retrieved will contain a list of words that the student should learn, and then the system “automatically generates questions to ask the students,” Maxine Eskenazi clarifies, adding that the system was “adapted for Portuguese and it went on to be very successful.” 

 “It is Amazing What the Students Are Doing” 

Maxine Eskenazi got involved with the CMU Portugal Program through her collaboration with Isabel Trancoso, researcher at INESC-ID and professor at IST-UL. “In the beginning, the greatest challenge was convincing my colleagues that this was a good thing. And now I am surprised with the number of colleagues who applied to the last Call for Entrepreneurial Research Initiatives, people who were very wary of working with someone new,” she confesses. “They have seen how successful some of our students are and now they think they should get involved in this,” the researcher adds. 

According to Maxine Eskenazi, being part of the Program was “not that challenging for me because Isabel and I know each other and we work on similar things.” But the greatest thing about the Program is the opportunity to co-advise “students who have a good, strong background,” people who find, thanks to the dual degree, “that they can do amazing things in astonishing amounts of time,” she reveals. 

Maxine Eskenazi admits that it must be hard for dual degree Ph.D. students to have two advisors, and for that reason she believes that both the students and the professors should be able to travel, so that the students “feel they are taken care of in both countries.” The CMU professor believes that the advisors should see their students at least every six months that is why she has been in Portugal several times and “hopefully will be there next summer. Even when students and professors are distant, maintaining contact frequently is key to take stock of what everybody is doing,” she explains. “With the MOOC project, because there are a lot of people involved we have a weekly Skype meeting. With Rui Correia’s project, we have ‘Friday afternoon mail’ where the team tell us what they have done that week and then we give them feedback,” the researcher explains. 

Even though at first the program sent first and second year students to CMU, the professors realized that it was best to have them spend their first year in Portugal “so they could get used to Ph.D. programs first. We had no problem finding equivalent courses at IST-UL, because now the students can take half of the courses in Portugal and the other half at CMU,” she explains, stating that the teaching quality is similar. “They perform very well here. One of the things that I can note for Rui Correia, for instance, is that he was a Teaching Assistant (TA) for Jaime Carbonell, a really well-known and respected professor with about 50 TAs, and Rui is in the top three TAs that professor Carbonell has ever had,” she reveals with pride, adding that “this is just one of the many things that has our colleagues saying they should have a Portuguese student because they are really good. It is amazing what they are doing.” 

February 2014