Highlight on Alum Beth Trushkowsky

Originally printed in Winter/Spring 2015 Newsletter

Beth Trushkowsky is an assistant professor at Harvey Mudd College in the Computer Science department. She received her MS and PhD degrees from The University of California, Berkeley under the supervision of Professors Michael J. Franklin and Armando Fox. Her MS research focused on developing a storage system to support highly interactive social computing applications. The system was developed to allow web application developers to declaratively state application-specific consistency requirements, and to take advantage of cloud computing to provide cost-effective scale-up and scale-down. For her PhD, Trushkowsky worked on leveraging human intelligence via crowdsourcing to create hybrid human/machine query processing systems to aid in answering difficult queries. In particular, her work focused on developing algorithms to understand and tolerate crowd worker behaviors, allowing users to reason about query result quality. Prior to her years at UC Berkeley, Trushkowsky was an undergraduate at Duke University, where she participated in the CREU program.

How did you become interested in pursuing a career in computer science?

My excitement about computer science actually started before college with web design. I really enjoyed learning how the web worked and figuring out how to use HTML, stylesheets, and eventually JavaScript, to develop my own web sites These initial experiences cultivated my interest in programming and ultimately a fascination with database systems.  As an undergraduate, I felt that my computer science courses never ceased to amaze and inspire me.  At its core, computer science is about problem solving and experimentation. For me, the ability to try things out as I learned about them was, and continues to be, very exciting.

How did your CREU experience influence your  career path?

Participating in CREU while I was at Duke gave me a first taste of the many aspects of research that are so compelling: independence, problem solving, and freedom to explore interesting challenges. Working on a research project is a much different experience than, say, working on a problem set or other homework where you are tackling problems with known solutions. Research allows you to push your knowledge to new discoveries and applications. My CREU experience made me realize that I really enjoyed these aspects of research, and gave me more confidence to pursue it. I believe my time doing undergraduate research influenced my decision to pursue graduate studies and eventually become a professor.

Do you have any insight to share with undergraduates who might want to give research a try but don’t know how to start?

I think it is important to talk with professors and fellow students to see what projects are out there. You could start by approaching professors who taught a class you enjoyed. I would also recommend trying to do research with professors with whom you think you would like to work; a first experience with research should be about learning how to do research in a supportive and encouraging environment, rather than discovering what specific subarea of computing you want to focus on longer-term. Once you have gotten started, realize that it’s okay if you don’t already know the answer, that’s the point!  And, if you have a chance to do multiple research experiences, try exploring opportunities on different projects.

When did you decide to pursue an academic career in computer science? What do you enjoy most about being a faculty member?

About halfway through graduate school I realized I did not want to be a software engineer when I was finished. Part of that decision was due to having gotten used to the freedom and flexibility
of the academic lifestyle—I only like working on problems that I want to be working on! For me, the choice was between joining a research lab, becoming a professor at a research-focused institution, or becoming a professor at a teaching-focused institution. I knew I wanted to work with students, and ultimately decided that I wanted to teach at an undergraduate college.

At Harvey Mudd, I am fortunate to be able to work with students on many fronts: in the classroom, as an advisor for senior project teams, and on summer research projects. My favorite aspect of the job is definitely the people. I enjoy building relationships with students. I also appreciate that life as a faculty member provides so much flexibility to continue exploring new areas of computer science. For example, teaching a new course is an opportunity to learn a new topic!

What made you decide on your specific research area? Tell us a bit about what excites you most about your current research.

My interest in database systems began in college, and I chose to pursue that area for research during graduate school. For me, database systems hit the sweet spot between systems and theory—cool algorithms that drive powerful and practical applications. When I was in graduate school, I became interested in the idea of compute resources as a service, such as Amazon’s elastic cloud computing service (EC2). I really liked the notion of acquiring these resources on-demand, scaling their usage up or down as the need for compute power fluctuates.

More recently, I have been excited by another type of elastic resources: people! Micro-task labor markets, like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, provide a programmatic interface for asking other humans, i.e., crowds, to do small units of work, such as verify a business’s address or tag a photo. This programmatic interface provides an opportunity to incorporate human computation into software alongside machine computation. My particular interest has been combining human and machine computation to explore hybrid query processing systems. People can help the database system answer queries it would otherwise have difficulty with, e.g., predicates with subjective comparisons or to gather additional data using real-world knowledge and experience. An existing challenge is how to combine humans and machines in a cost-effective way to answer a given query, where cost may include both monetary cost to pay crowd workers and processing time, as well as other factors. Finding a low-cost strategy to execute a query is the role of the query optimizer in a traditional database system, and I am very interested in thinking about what an optimizer would look like in a hybrid human/machine system.

What are your future plans (over the next 5 years)?

Hopefully to get tenure! I think along that path a number of goals excite me. In the teaching arena, I hope to build out my repertoire of database and data-related courses that I offer, touching
on important topics like data science and distributed/parallel computation. I’m also excited to work with students doing summer research to tackle the query optimization challenge for hybrid human/machine query processing systems. Additionally, I aim to continue with the diversity efforts at Harvey Mudd, which includes bringing students to the Tapia conference on diversity in computing.

Have you experienced any particular challenges and/or opportunities as a member of an underrepresented group?

I am glad there are mentorship opportunities for underrepresented groups, which I have taken advantage of at various points during my path through academia. These opportunities are wonderful for feeling less isolated and boosting confidence. I think at times my membership in underrepresented groups causes my imposter syndrome to kick in, for example if I receive a scholarship or award—it’s easy to doubt whether I actually deserved it, or if I received it only due to my minority status. Having a great support network helps allay these doubts.

Are you involved in other activities that support women and minorities in computing?

I have attended the Tapia conference on diversity in computing most years since I began graduate school, and hope to continue that tradition. During my first year at Harvey Mudd, another professor and I were thrilled to bring eight students with us to the Tapia conference. That same school year, we also attended the Grace Hopper conference and brought forty students with us! These have been awesome experiences and I am so glad to have found a place that has such a commitment to supporting diversity. Harvey Mudd also has an ACM-W group that has dinner at professors’ residences several times a semester, which is a really nice bonding experience for the Mudd community.

What do you do for fun and how do you balance life outside of work with your career objectives?

I really enjoy traveling and trying new restaurants and cuisines. I tend to be a “food tourist” when I travel, i.e., planning an itinerary around all the places I want to eat! More recently, I have started trying to cook interesting food at home. Since living in California, I have gotten more into outdoor activities like hiking. I also like playing tennis, although my skill level leaves much to be desired. As a new faculty member, I am still trying to find the balance! I have found that scheduling activities or outings with friends and family is a great forcing function. I have also set aside some “me” time (Jerusalem, Israel) each day when I can do things such as read a book before bed. I have a great set of colleagues at Harvey Mudd, so we plan lunches and happy hour gatherings periodically. That helps with the balance as well.