Highlight on Alum – Sarah Ita Levitan

Originally Printed in Summer/Fall 2015 Newsletter

Interviewed by: Carla Ellis, Duke University

headshotSarah Ita Levitan is a 3rd year PhD student in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University.
She is a member of the Spoken Language Processing group directed by Dr. Julia Hirschberg. Her research involves identifying spoken cues to deception and examining cultural and gender differences in communicating and perceiving lies. She received her bachelor’s degree in computer science from Brooklyn College (CUNY). Before her senior year, she participated in the Distributed Research Experience for Undergraduates (DREU), studying acoustic and prosodic entrainment in Supreme Court oral arguments. Sarah Ita is currently funded through an NSF-GRFP fellowship and is an IGERT fellow.

Q: How did you become interested in pursuing research in computer science?

Having an older sister who studied computer science influenced my initial decision to enroll in an introductory CS course at Brooklyn College. I enjoyed it and decided to take the next level course. My professor, Dr. Dina Sokol, spoke about her work on algorithms and DNA. Her enthusiasm for computing inspired me, and I completed two research projects mentored by her. She recommended that I apply for the DREU program, which solidified my interest in computer science research. Working in a research lab full time and interacting with graduate students and faculty members helped me realize that I wanted to attend graduate school and continue computer science research.

Q: How did your DREU experience influence your career path?

Sarah Ita Levitan NewsletterMy DREU experience had a huge influence on my career path. Working with Dr. Hirschberg, I became hooked on natural language and speech processing. I ended up returning the following summer, and ultimately joining the speech lab at Columbia as a PhD student, with my DREU mentor as my PhD advisor! I feel privileged to have such a wise and dedicated advisor, whose enthusiasm for research is contagious, and whose commitment to helping her students is extraordinary. She is passionate about encouraging women in CS, and continues to mentor DREU students most summers. Under her guidance, I have mentored a few excellent DREU students. I feel like things have come full circle!

Q: What other research experiences did you pursue as an undergraduate? Do you have any insight to share with undergraduates who might want to give research a try?

My very first research experience occurred during the summer
of my college freshman year when I worked as a research intern at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. I worked with a software development group to help develop a web-based clinical research system for a large NIH-funded clinical trial. My job involved transforming PDF mock-ups of the forms into functional web-based forms using HTML and CSS. I later worked on an honors research project during my senior year in the field of computational biology. The project involved classifying tandem repeats in the human genome. At this stage I was more involved in higher level work, and I was a co-author of my first publication.

I would advise undergrads looking for research experience to take initiative and be proactive. Read about the research that your professors are involved with, and if something interests you, send them an email, or better yet, go to their office hours. Go to research talks and approach the speaker with questions, and ask about opportunities to work with them. The summer is a great time to get significant research experience, and I would strongly recommend applying to the DREU program.

Don’t be discouraged if your first experience with research is not quite what you expected. At entry level, basic research can involve repetitive, detail-oriented chores such as collecting, cleaning and converting data. This is an incredibly important part of research, and it makes it easy to contribute to a project while you fill in the gaps in your background with a lot of reading and asking questions.

Q: What made you decide on your specific research area? What excites you most about your current research?

I decided to focus on spoken language processing after my DREU experience. My specific research area of deception is a fascinating one; the project began before I joined the lab, and I was very interested in joining this project when I began my PhD. I’ve always enjoyed reading mysteries about spies and deception, and it’s pretty cool to be working on automatic deception detection. I’m most excited by the wide range of applications of my work. I recently attended a program review meeting at the US Air Force Academy, and this gave me a deeper appreciation of the broader impact of our work in terms of its implications for law enforcement and national security.

Q: If it’s not too soon to ask – What are your future career plans (after graduation)?

I have not yet decided what career I’d like to pursue when I graduate. This summer I had a wonderful experience working with the speech and natural language team at Interactions Corporation. I was exposed to a research environment within an industry setting, and had the gratification of seeing my work deployed in a real world application. I’m also interested in mentoring and teaching so I’m considering academia as another career option. Whatever career path I end up taking, I hope I have the opportunity to use my work and abilities to contribute to science and society.

Q: Have you been involved in other activities that support women in computing (e.g., participating in a local women-in- computing group, attending Grace Hopper)?

grace_hopperAfter my summer as a DREU participant, I attended the Grace Hopper conference (funded by DREU), to present results from my summer research. It was a truly incredible experience; I had never seen or even imagined that there were that many women in CS!

I was used to being the only female (or maybe one of two or three) in classes of 30,40, or 50 students. The conference talks and workshops inspired me to start a Women in Computer Science club on my campus. It was a challenge to recruit women to participate, since there really weren’t that many, but we did host a panel event featuring female faculty and alumnae. I received great feedback about founding the club, and even encouraged a few younger students to apply to participate in the DREU program.

Now that I am at Columbia, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the very active Women in CS club, and I served as the mentorship chair for the past few semesters. As part of the WICS Mentorship Program, younger female students with an interest in computer science are assigned to female mentors who act as role models, advice givers, and friends. Instead of pairing one mentor to one student, we began an initiative where we assign students to “Mentorship Circles” with 3-5 members in each circle. Each circle has a leader who mentors the group, and there are some members of the group who are both mentees and mentors to younger students. This gives a more flexible dynamic to the groups, and creates an open, sharing environment. The circles meet informally
a couple of times a month, over coffee or lunch. As part of the program, we held networking events for the participants, and we also ran contests to provide incentives for the circles to meet regularly. Our mentorship program is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn first-hand about internships, research experience, graduate school, and job options, in a relaxed, enjoyable way. Mentors gain from the program by experiencing what it means to be a role model for younger students, practice leadership skills, and encourage other women to pursue a career in computer science.

Q: What do you do for fun? How do you balance life outside of work with your career objectives?

sound_boothI love to end a long day of work by coming home and relaxing with my wonderful husband and adorable daughter. I am fortunate to have a circle of family and friends that are supportive and encouraging of my career path. I try to balance my different roles
by focusing on my current task. When I am at my desk, I am giving my work my all. And when I’m at the dinner table, my laptop is away and my family is my main focus. It’s definitely a challenge, but both jobs are incredibly rewarding.