Spotlight: PhD student Lara Deek

Favorite things about the CS Department

One of my favorite things about the CS department is its commitment to quality research. NRC in 2010 ranked us among the top 10 graduate CS programs in the US, reflecting the passion of our researchers. What I also value about our department is what happens behind the scenes with the people, making the department an even more exciting and fulfilling place to be. The people in the department, from grad students to staff to faculty, have cultivated a warm and social atmosphere. Three of our main events are the fall and spring barbecues at the beach and a Christmas party. We all get together, meet the new students, have fun with the people we already know, and just have a good time. That is how we are in the department: we are a niche of friends. There is no hierarchy. An excellent setting to be productive and to challenge yourself.

Favorite things about UCSB

What I value the most about being at UCSB is that it allows me to maintain and cultivate a very balanced lifestyle. I feel the UCSB culture fosters a healthy attitude towards academics and personal life. The University has excellent extracurricular programs to take advantage of, such as the Arts and Lectures Program, the Adventure Program, and many others. There is a lot that you can do at UCSB, and the fact that the school is in a beautiful setting like Santa Barbara is a key component.

Favorite things about Santa Barbara

There are many things that I love about Santa Barbara. I love the weather that allows me to go outside any day of the year. Outdoor activities are plenty and close by: hiking, ultimate frisbee, kayaking, beach volleyball, surfing, running, or just tanning! There is also a lot going on in Santa Barbara. Eventually I figured out how to keep track of all the local events by browsing the local newspapers. I love that SB is a safe place where I feel comfortable going out with friends and enjoying what Santa Barbara has to offer.

What do you find rewarding about your research?

In a nutshell, being able to choose the topics that I am excited to work on is what makes my research rewarding. Since my research interests focus on emerging wireless networks, I know that the next thing I will work on is the next-generation technology in the wireless world that has considerable potential to give us higher data rates and a better user experience.  Achieving the full potential of these technologies is challenging and requires a fundamental understanding of how these technologies work and how best to exploit their bandwidth capacity. I use my knowledge base and expertise to design solutions to take full advantage of that potential. Over the past decade, we have seen wireless networks gain considerable momentum over wired connections to become the primary mode of communication and Internet connectivity. The availability of wireless networks has had an impact in a number of disciplines within and beyond computer science, leading to novel technologies and relevant research directions.  Google Glass, for example, has had profound impact on society, enabled through wireless connectivity. It is exciting how the world is becoming more connected through wireless networks, how interactions and events are becoming more real-time, and what opportunities that affords us.  I get to work on solutions to make these networks more efficient, reliable, and robust. That is very rewarding.

UCSB prides itself on its collaborative atmosphere; give some examples of how you collaborate

One of the examples that I think exemplifies a collaborative atmosphere at UCSB that I have consistently participated in and contributed to is the Graduate Student Workshop in Computing (GSWC). I took on the responsibility of Chair of the workshop, and previously the Vice Chair and Proceedings Chair. GSWC is organized by and for graduate students in the CS department in order to showcase their research. We now also invite academic and industry speakers, as well as a panel of industry experts to discuss hot topics in the field of computer science. Over the years, GSWC has grown to become a highly-successful program with high attendance, through dedicated collaboration and commitment to excellence from all of its participants.  In my own research, I have worked with multiple faculty and researchers both from the department, in industry (through internships with Hewlett Packard Labs and Microsoft Research), and other universities. I have learned a tremendous amount through my collaborations with post-docs and notable researchers in my area. There is much to be gained from true collaborative work, including gaining knowledge and experience, and establishing good connections.

What are your thoughts on working in a group research environment and your experience working with an advisor?

My research direction does not overlap significantly with the research direction of other members in my lab, so I have worked alone on my problems. That being said, I am still conscious of all the benefits of a group research environment, in terms of collaborating, sharing knowledge and expertise, dividing and conquering tasks, and solving brain blocks. Group research is a very effective and fun model. My personal experience with group research has been through collaborations with researchers through internships, a visiting post-doc, and a PhD graduate from my lab. Group research is a place where I can thrive. As for my advisors (I am co-advised), they have been a great support throughout the years. I often feel that maybe I should be taking advantage of their knowledge and experience a little more. There is much to be gained from a good relationship with your advisor and you can learn a lot from them.

Where will your research take you next?

My research focuses on designing resource efficient systems for emerging wireless networks. This means that if a new wireless technology comes out that provides us with significant potential and opportunity to achieve higher bandwidths, I will be working on designing systems that understand how these technologies work and are able to efficiently achieve that potential increase in bandwidth. I would also like to understand the impact of these solutions on our day-to-day wireless-driven interactions and activities and how to make them more seamless, resource-efficient, and cost-effective. In the short term, I will be perfecting transmission systems for WiFi networks, which now support Gigabit Ethernet (i.e. wired) speeds. Imagine not needing your Ethernet cord any longer to connect to the Internet and get the same speeds.  Isn't that wonderful?! What more can you do with that? Ultimately, I would like to pursue an academic, research-oriented career where I get to continue to work on such exciting topics in wireless networks.

What are your thoughts of the strength of the CS graduate program?

As a student, I judge the strength of a CS graduate program not only on its faculty and the publications they generate, but also based on how its graduate students engage in research discussion. To be a part of a successful graduate program you need to learn the art of research, and at some early point be able to closely participate in the generation of your own research topics, with guidance by your advisors. In our department, I feel that we do that well.  Considering the strengths and accomplishments of our faculty, I think we’re part of a great program.

Describe your experience as a teaching assistant (TA) and research assistant (GSR)

I greatly enjoy being a TA, especially the courses that are in my field of interest. I feel that I can give students more in that area. Of course, since research is my passion, being able to focus only on my research by being hired as a GSR is certainly the best circumstance. I believe, though, that it is necessary to have experienced being a TA as part of your graduate career, especially as a PhD student. Teaching the material gives you a firmer grasp of it. Also, learning how to teach complex material helps you master skills necessary to discuss your research work with people outside of your field.

Comment on the quality of life as a graduate student and how you balance school, work, social, and family life

Being at UCSB and in SB is an extremely fortunate circumstance. When you seek a balance, you need to prioritize and ask yourself what is really important to you. For me it was my research, family, social life and friends, eating healthy, working out, outdoors activities, and tango dancing… I then have to commit to a lifestyle where I can do all that, because it truly makes me happy. Such things do not come easily at all, especially when you just pick up something new. You need to have a strong mindset and be able to consistently commit. We should keep in mind, though, that it is healthy and necessary to keep a positive attitude. Sometimes you need to tip the balance in favor of one thing or another for your own sanity and that is normal. Ultimately, we have to remember that we are seeking a particular lifestyle to make us happy. If we are miserable when the balance tips sometimes it defeats the point.

What did you do over summer break?

This past summer, which actually was my last summer at UCSB, I interned with Microsoft Research in Seattle with the Mobility and Networking Research group. Seattle is an absolutely beautiful city during the Summer time. In general, I would recommend to all graduate students to intern during the summer. You gain experience, make connections, and get the opportunity to collaborate with capable people in your field.

What's your advice to prospective graduate students?

Do your best, and have no regrets. That is my policy.