Meet the GRADflix finalist who combined art and programming to share her research

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Each year the University of Waterloo GRADflix competition sees Master’s and PhD students from every discipline participate, creating 60-second videos describing their research and showcasing the amazing ideas and ambitions of our community of graduate researchers. This year, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs is following up with our 2023 participants. In a series of video interviews, we asked them about their GRADflix experience, what they learned, and what they hope to share with others.

Yuzhe YouOur second GRADflix experience profile belongs to Yuzhe You, from the Faculty of Mathematics. Yuzhe is an incoming PhD student in Computer Science at Waterloo, and was a Master of Mathematics student at the time of participating in the 2023 GRADflix competition, where she was chosen as a finalist. She is a member of both the WatVis (Waterloo Visualization) research group directed by Prof. Jian Zhao, and the iTSS Lab directed by Prof. Liping Fu. Her research involves information visualization (InfoVis) for artificial intelligence systems, with a focus on visualizing Adversarial Machine Learning (AML) and Traffic Analysis. Specifically, she develops interactive visualization tools that enhance AI interpretability and help improve the “adversarial robustness” of machine learning models.

Yuzhe’s playful and creative GRADflix video evokes the nostalgic 8-bit pixel style of classic video games to create a fun and visually appealing presentation. Yuzhe explains that she “hoped to create a video that was both informative and approachable, and to convey the idea that computer science research can also be fun, exciting, and creative.” In keeping with that theme, creating the video was a combination of art and programming. Yuzhe drew all of the pixel art for the video herself using an iPad, then programmed the animations using a game engine to bring her artwork to life. From there, she set the game to autoplay and screencast it. So while the final video might appear as animation mimicking the style of a video game, in actuality it is a real, playable video game that Yuzhe created and filmed!

Yuzhe explains that a focus of her research is how to visualize AML to make it more interpretable for practitioners of any background. To do this, she incorporates “beginner-friendly” designs into her visualization systems. In creating her GRADflix video, she applied the same philosophy, using engaging visual aids and animations to illustrate the key concepts and ideas behind her research, in order to make the video as clear as possible for a general audience.

The most challenging part of the video creation process for Yuzhe was finding a way to accessibly explain a highly nuanced and technical field of study in a concise 60-second time frame. In order to accomplish that, she deliberately shifted focus from technical details to the background implications of her research, using visual aids to explain the dynamics and importance of her work in broad strokes.

For other students from Mathematics or other technical fields, Yuzhe suggests a similar approach can be beneficial. “My advice would be to shift the focus from technical details to storytelling. Highlight the implications and impacts of your research, and use engaging visuals to supplement them. The goal is to present your work in such a way that it is understandable and interesting to everyone. With clear language and some creativity, you can effectively communicate technical research to a wider audience.”

Prior to GRADflix, Yuzhe reportedly had difficulty conveying the intricacies of her work to others outside her field. The process of creating her GRADflix video, of shifting her mindset to that of a storyteller, helped her to understand the importance and value of simplifying concepts and using concise language when communicating her research. In the end, she explains, participating in GRADflix has taught her how to effectively communicate the significance of her work, while also allowing her an opportunity to combine her expertise in computer science with her passion for art, showcasing her creativity to a wide audience.

Looking ahead, she plans to share her video on different platforms to reach a broader audience, in addition to submitting the video to other research communication competitions. Meanwhile, she believes that the communication skills she developed during the GRADflix competition will help with future presentations and talks, as well as potentially with creating research demos and educational materials.

For anyone interested, Yuzhe recommends GRADflix as a fantastic opportunity to develop crucial communication skills and network with other graduate students from different fields in a truly unique experience. If you are interested in learning more, visit the GRADflix web page for information on how you can participate, and create your own GRADflix experience.