Above and Beyond

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

In recognition of his dedication as a mentor and instructor to undergraduate students, computer science master’s student Alex Mei has received a 2022-’23 UC Santa Barbara Award of Distinction from the Academic Senate. The award is presented to graduating students who have made an outstanding contribution to a particular area of student life and in recognition of in-depth involvement and significant achievement in campus or community activities. Mei, who participated in the Computer Science (CS) Department’s BS/MS program, completed his master’s degree this spring, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer science and graduating with a 4.0 cumulative grade point average last year. 

“Receiving the University Award of Distinction means a lot to me,” said Mei. “Last year, my academic excellence was recognized through the Outstanding Senior Award, which reflected my hard work and the sacrifices I made to excel academically. This year, it is heartwarming to see my community-building efforts recognized. I have always appreciated the university’s supportive environment and wanted to actively contribute to this positive atmosphere.”

Mei has mentored eight undergraduate students, four of whom are part of the CS Department’s Early Research Scholars Program (ERSP), a year-long research apprenticeship program designed to support students in their first research experience. Mei, himself, was introduced to research as an ERSP participant, when he started working with computer science associate professor William Wang. Mei has remained an active member of Wang’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) Group for the past three years, working on responsible machine learning (ML), with a focus on transparency and text safety. 

To facilitate his mentees learning, Mei met weekly with the group to offer technical feedback and share insights from his own experiences. He developed customized interactive Python notebooks to teach fundamental concepts and provide a hands-on learning experience for students that incorporated state-of-the-art models. Under his guidance, the students submitted a high-impact methods paper to a top-tier NLP conference within a four-month period. Mei also worked as an undergraduate learning assistant and graduate teaching assistant for four quarters, again, going above and beyond to further ensure student success by holding extra office hours, creating supplemental resources, such as course notes and summary sheets, and introducing an interactive review game for exam preparation. 

“Seeing individuals succeed through learning materials is a good first step, but actively helping students reach their full potential by providing them support through a variety of resources is exciting,” said Mei, who as an undergraduate volunteered with the Santa Barbara City Library to teach children the fundamentals of engineering. “The proactive effort is well worth it to hear stories of how my efforts have inspired students to pursue computer science or machine learning, two topics that I am very passionate about.”

Throughout his time at UCSB, Mei has been inspired by people he describes as “angelic mentors.” He said that Tony Sun, a former NLP member, and PhD student Sharon Levy were outstanding role models who provided hands-on research support and looked after his well-being and personal growth. Their efforts as mentors motivated him to pay it forward and nurture future aspiring researchers. Mei also praised his advisor, William Wang, and associate teaching professor and ERSP director, Diba Mirza.

“Professor Wang has provided consistent support to further my research and career. My research thesis or research projects would not exist without his passion and keen eye for AI/NLP research,” said Mei. “And, it cannot be understated how the education research offered by Professor Mirza through the Undergraduate Learning Assistant Program and the Early Research Scholar Program have improved the quality of my education and the department itself.”

As a researcher in the NLP Group, Mei published three first-author academic papers at the most prestigious NLP conference, and he has five more papers in progress or under review. He has accepted a position as an AI research scientist at Two Sigma, a financial services company. 

Doris Wei, who received her bachelor’s degree in computer science last month, also received a UCSB Award of Distinction for promoting health and wellness across campus and helping her fellow computer science majors stay on track. To read more about her efforts, click here

Alex Mei, 2023 University Award of Distinction recipient

Alex Mei, 2023 University Award of Distinction recipient