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22 June 2020

An Interview with Christian Lopez, Tapia 2020 Academic Workshops and Panels Co-Chair Interview

Christian Lopez workshops
Christian López

Christian López is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science with an affiliation in Mechanical Engineering at Lafayette College.  Christian is the Tapia 2020 Academic Workshops and Panels Co-Chair.   We spoke with Christian about his work and what he’s looking forward to in this year’s Tapia.

Tell me about your background and where you grew up.

I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic.  My Dad was a mechanical engineer and my mom was an accountant.  From my dad, I got my interest in engineering and science and from my mom, I got my business side.

How did you become involved in Computer science?

I always liked math and statistics and taking things apart.  I got my first computer when I was about ten years old. There wasn’t a big computer boom in the Dominican Republic and I really didn’t know a lot about the software side but I very much enjoyed the hardware side.  I did my undergraduate studies in the Dominican Republic in Industrial Engineering since it mixed both my engineering and business interests.  One of the key things for me was to be sure to take time between each stage of my education to work and make sure that I wanted to take the next step in my education.

I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to complete a Master’s Degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Industrial and Systems Engineering, with a concentration in Applied Statistics.  When I pursued my Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University I focused on human factors and conducted research on machine learning, data science, and human-computer interaction.

My original plan was not to go into teaching. While I was working on my Master’s Degree my advisor left and I had to take over and help teach all of his labs. I realized I really liked teaching and that if I wanted to be a professor, I would need to get my Ph.D.  I did take some time before the Ph.D. to work in industry to confirm that was what I wanted to do.  I advise students to always look at both paths – industry, and academia.  After I received my PhD I came to Lafayette College.

What are the key projects you are working on today?

I am working on a number of very exciting projects. The first is with a university in the Dominican Republic to create a system to automatically detect car accidents from traffic cameras using machine learning and computer vision. This will help reduce response times and save lives.

I’m also working on an NSF funded project with my Ph.D. advisor on how to use Virtual Reality to teach industrial engineering concepts.  I am also working on two other Virtual Reality projects, one that aims to help improve students’ spatial visualization skills and another that aims to create more engagement and immersive experience of engineering and science courses. Imagine if you are taking a geology class, Virtual Reality makes it impossible to travel to the Grand Canyon, instead of learning everything from a book or images. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will make it possible to immerse students in those environments from the safety of their home or classroom.  You could also take them on an aerial tour and then zero in.  We can completely simulate an environment or scan and digitize it.

My newest project is working with an International Affairs faculty to study the discourse taking place on Twitter about natural disasters and events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’re collecting data and looking at how information and misinformation are spread.  For example, we have found there was dialog as early as January about viruses. We are also able to see how people perceive different policies applied broken down by countries and states. In the early stages of the pandemic, there were a lot of contradictory policies for example on the wearing of masks.  Being able to do this kind of analysis will help decision-makers in future pandemic to effectively spread the correct information and monitor how it is being accepted.  We do all this by collecting and analyzing keywords in social media.  We are analyzing over half a billion tweets.  One example was that a tweet containing misinformation spread to multiple other countries around the whole, including the US, in just a matter of minutes.

How did you become involved in the Tapia Conference?

In 2017 my Ph.D. advisor had advised me to attend the Blackwell Tapia Conference, which is math-focused.  I submitted late but I saw that I could submit to the Richard Tapia Celebration and I submitted a poster.  I applied for a scholarship and ended up participating in the ACM Graduate Poster program.   I began teaching in 2019 and could not attend but I had enjoyed the conference and I reached out to the organizing committee.  They asked me to be a workshop and panel co-chair for this year.

I support the Tapia conference because it is different from research conferences.  At Tapia, you can focus on developing critical skills and knowledge by attending panels and workshops that help you grow as a person and grow your network. I encourage students to attend because of that and also because at the Career Fair you can see all the different options you can pursue.  You can have those conversations about what it means to go to graduate school or industry.

What do you think some of the highlights of this year’s Tapia Program are?

I think the major highlight of this year is that the conference is going virtual.  This means that you will be able to “attend all of the sessions” – some live and some by watching the recordings afterward.  What a great opportunity for even greater learning.  Things will be easier because you won’t have to choose which session to attend, you go to all of them.

I encourage everyone attending to make the most out of all the opportunities offered for networking, finding a job or internship, expanding your knowledge.  And students should definitely be submitting their resumes to the resume database.   For presenters, be sure to focus on keeping your audience engaged and motivated throughout your sessions.

What advice do you like to give people?

Only when we are out of our comfort zone can we truly grow.