Vasanthi Vuppuluri, Machine Learning Engineer II, Course Hero
Current city: Sunnyvale, CA
Hometown: Hyderabad, India
Education: Bachelor of Technology, Computer Science, Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University; MS in Computer Science, University of Houston
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Natural language processing (NLP) is an area of computer science and artificial intelligence that relates to how computers and human language interact. It’s a field that has directly spoken to Vasanthi Vuppuluri, a Machine Learning Engineer II at Course Hero. What started out with a youthful interest in computers blossomed into a career in NLP, now with a specific focus on machine learning in edtech.
Vasanthi found her career in computer science through video games. “The very first thing that interested me in engineering was computers. This was back when I was still in high school and didn’t know much about computers, except for playing video games. It was one of the things that I really enjoyed, and I wanted to learn more,” she says.
After taking a variety of courses in college, Vasanthi realized that creating video games was not the dream job she thought it would be. “I also took game design courses because that interested me. But as I was taking the courses, I realized that playing games is much more fun than developing them,” she says of the trajectory that landed her in her current role. “My first job out of college was also NLP, and then I moved on (also as an NLP scientist). Now I’m here as a machine learning engineer with an NLP background, because Course Hero is heavily invested with text documents.”
Of her current day-to-day work, Vasanthi explains, “My work uses machine learning and NLP to build machine learning models that power product features, which includes understanding the downstream impact of the models. It involves partnering with engineers from various teams, understanding best practices to enable the integration of ML in our product. Being able to write production-quality code and continuing to learn the evolving concepts in the field of ML and sharing the learnings with the team are natural parts of the role.”
Career and life lessons from Course Hero’s Vasanthi Vuppuluri
On finding her passion
I did my undergrad in India. It’s a little different from undergrad here in regards to course selection; all the courses are preselected and there is a wide variety that you’re required to take. While I didn’t have a choice in the matter of course selection, it ended up being a good thing because it exposed me to courses I may not have otherwise taken. I took courses ranging from computer design to artificial intelligence, both low and high level. I also studied different programming languages, different aspects of the computer, different applications of systems, and by the end of my undergrad, I had a concrete idea of how I wanted to progress. That’s how I decided to do a master’s in computer science with a specialization in natural language processing—because I always liked working with text.
On discovering NLP
My interest in natural language processing was first sparked when I attended a lecture about understanding what people are trying to say on Twitter. The lecture was focused on identifying patterns to see if terrorists had any discussions going on in certain channels, and to identify any potential threats they might pose in the future based on the tweets. I really liked how this use of understanding text added value to society by identifying patterns and, in turn, making the world a safer place. The usefulness of being able to identify something people are looking for is a really beautiful thing and it still interests me today. Language is an area that hasn’t yet fully evolved in the field of computer science.
On changing her thesis
When I started my thesis in NLP, I wanted to focus on identifying fraudulent financial documents that are submitted to the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] and flag any documents that didn’t match up with what the company had put forth. There was low-level language understanding that was to be done to be able to achieve this, and the open source libraries available then weren’t meeting our requirements. So I pivoted my thesis to a different topic: identifying collocations, n-grams, multi-word expressions, and idioms from English text. This research is being furthered by students who came in after me and find this area of work interesting.
On remembering how far you’ve come
I find it helpful to remember how far I’ve come in my career and not forget where I started. When I look back to where I was 3 years ago, I didn’t know half the things I know today. I’m constantly learning; every job has been teaching me things and helping me become a better person. I think that’s one of the things that’s important for everyone, no matter where they are in their career: Don’t forget where you started, so when you look back you see how far you’ve come.
On being drawn to Course Hero
I love solving problems, especially those involving text. Course Hero has an amazing corpus of text—one of the largest libraries of undergraduate study material. Understanding what’s in our library of documents and being able to provide students with exactly what they are looking for (and more!) is the most exciting thing. We’re aiming to get to a state where we can recommend a selected study material from within our corpus to students based on what they are trying to learn (their short-term and long-term education goals), and not just what they are searching for. I was drawn to Course Hero because we can have a positive impact in the field of education.
On her most important lesson from Course Hero
One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve found at Course Hero is working with a humble team I consider friends. It really strengthens the feeling of teamwork and makes me excited to come to work every morning. Working with people I respect and admire towards a collective goal of helping students—it makes this job that much more special.
Vasanthi Vuppuluri’s tips on keeping up with evolving knowledge in your field
1. Pay attention to industry research, not just academic research.
Usually students tend to focus on academic research: They go to conferences, do research, and publish their own papers, and they know the academic side of things. Focusing on industry research is equally important. There are great companies working on cutting-edge technology, like OpenAI, DeepMind from Google, Uber’s engineering wing, and Microsoft and IBM’s research teams. These companies open source a lot of their work and publish papers to share their knowledge.
2. Follow innovators in your field on social media.
It could be Twitter, Medium, Quora, etc. Find people you like in terms of their research and what they’re doing, so whenever they have a new blog post or research development to share, you’ll be notified.
3. Let vetted news sites do the research for you.
Follow sites like TechCrunch, MIT Technology Review, and Bloomberg Technology. They post lots of interesting articles and basically do the work for you in terms of keeping up on the latest industry news.