Steven Feng and Shannon Veitch selected for honourable mention in CRA’s 2020 Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Undergraduate students Steven Feng and Shannon Veitch have each received a prestigious honorable mention for their research from the Computing Research Association. The annual CRA awards program recognizes undergraduate students from universities across North America who show outstanding research potential in an area of computing science. Steven and Shannon are among three undergraduate recipients from the University of Waterloo and among 11 undergraduates from Canadian universities to receive an honorable mention for their research.

photo of Shannon Veitch and Steven Feng

About Steven Feng’s research

Steven is an undergraduate research assistant who has worked with Cheriton School of Computer Science Professors Edith Law, Jesse Hoey and Pascal Poupart as well as Professor Olga Vechtomova from the Faculty of Engineering’s Department of Management Sciences. 

Since 2018, Steven has contributed to a variety of machine learning research projects, among them two complementary ones with Professor Hoey on conversational assistants. The overall goal was to design chatbots and virtual assistants that can imitate human personalities.

In the first project, Steven helped develop a system called ALOHA — short for Artificial Learning of Human Attributes — that can mimic human personality in dialogue using human-level attributes. This work expands on research on personalized dialogue agents, as the human-level attributes are much more detailed and specific, leading to more effective dialogue personalization. This work resulted in paper titled ALOHA: Artificial Learning of Human Attributes for Dialogue Agents, which was accepted for presentation at AAAI-20, a top international conference on artificial intelligence.

In the second project, Steven came up with a task called semantic text exchange and a complementary system called SMERTI that uses natural language and emotional cues to change the text appropriately depending on the situation in which it is used. Combined with ALOHA, this will allow chatbots and virtual assistants to connect better to people with mental illness and cognitive disabilities. This work resulted in a paper titled Keep calm and switch on! Preserving sentiment and fluency in semantic text exchange, which was presented at the 2019 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing.

About Shannon Veitch’s research

Shannon is an undergraduate research assistant who has worked with University Professor Doug Stinson from the Cheriton School of Computer Science and Professor David Jao from the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization to pursue her broad research interests in combinatorics, algorithms and cryptography. She has conducted research in a variety of areas encompassing these fields.

Beginning in fall 2018, Shannon worked with University Professor Stinson and his colleague Professor Charles Colbourn from Arizona State University on investigating combinatorial designs and their properties. She implemented algorithms to find certain specific designs using backtracking and hill-climbing, and she also worked on the underlying theory, including recursive constructions and proving necessary conditions for existence of designs. Specifically, she examined orthogonal arrays — a combinatorial design with applications in coding theory, cryptography and optimization. The focus of this research was to construct orthogonal arrays that contain a row that is repeated as many times as possible. This research, in an article titled Constructions of optimal orthogonal arrays with repeated rows, was published in the journal Discrete Mathematics. Shannon continued her research in design theory in spring 2019, focusing on algorithmic approaches to solve some problems on block-avoiding sequencings of triple systems. This research was carried out with University Professor Stinson and Professor Donald Kreher from Michigan Technological University. This work led to three research papers that have been submitted to journals, two of which have recently been accepted for publication.

Most recently, Shannon conducted research on quantum-safe cryptography with Professor Jao. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is evaluating and standardizing quantum-resistant public-key cryptographic algorithms. One candidate is Supersingular Isogeny Key Encapsulation or SIKE, an isogeny-based cryptosystem relying on the hardness of calculating isogenies between elliptic curves. Implementing these algorithms requires modular arithmetic of 500+ bit integers, causing run times to be slow. To address this, Shannon is working on optimizing SIKE on ARM microcontrollers, as fast implementations in the ARM Cortex processors would allow for quantum-safe technology to be embedded in everyday IoT devices. So far, her work has achieved a ten-fold speed improvement on the ARM Cortex M3 from the state-of-the-art optimized C implementation of SIKE.

“Congratulations to Steven and Shannon on receiving this prestigious recognition from the Computing Research Association,” said Mark Giesbrecht, Director of the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. “Both have conducted and published exceptional research that has influenced their respective research areas. I wish them continued success.”

CRA is supported by Microsoft Research and Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, which sponsor the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award program in alternate years. This year, Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs sponsored CRA’s Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards.