Diversity is key: a tale of dentistry and machine learning

"Enjoy the ride, everything else is noise."

Amir Abdi

Amir Abdi

  • Degree: Doctor of Philosophy
  • Grad year: 2020
  • Program: Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Campus: Vancouver

In short, I’m a machine learning scientist, software engineer, entrepreneur/co-founder, and CTO, who used to be a Dentist! I’m all and none of the above, but a mere traveller from a kingdom far away, who seeks meaning in the butterfly effects of his everyday endeavours.

My academic journey started with simultaneous enrollments in the Computer Engineering and Dentistry fields. In the course of 7 years, I became a dentist (Doctor of Dental Surgery degree) and a Computer Engineer (bachelor’s and master’s degrees). This was followed with a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from UBC, where I was humbled to be awarded the Vanier Scholarship of Canada. During my Ph.D., I made connections between the science of machine learning, the art of software engineering, and the clinical diagnosis and planning of jaw reconstructive surgeries and cardiovascular interventions. I had the pleasure of my interdisciplinary works being recognized by the Gilles Brassard award conferred by the Governor General of Canada, and to shake hands with the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Today, in contrary to my north star goal, i.e., the academic faculty position, I’m a machine learning scientist/engineer in the Canadian industry.

Why did you choose to go into your field of study at UBC?

My decision to join UBC was mainly based on my research agenda, the interdisciplinary nature of the work, the capacity of the supervisors I was destined to learn from, namely, professors Purang Abolmaesumi and Sidney Fels, and how well my interests aligned with their research labs. Moreover, it is quite hard to find a city as beautiful as Vancouver, campus as mesmerizing as UBC, and people as friendly as Canadians. My best alternative (CMU, Pittsburgh) would not have come close. Joining UBC, and in turn, settling in Vancouver, were among the best choices I could have made.

What has made your time at UBC memorable?

There are more than a few highlights. Moving into Acadia Park. Every autumn of the Main Mall. Long chats and lunches with lab-mates. Diversity of friends one can make here. Thanksgivings and holiday gatherings at my supervisors’. My wife’s graduation. Every spring of the Main Mall! Waking up in the morning to check the conference submission results, and, of course, the many rejections. Afternoon coffees. My especial connection with the students being recognized by the Killam GTA award. Conference trips. Everything suddenly going virtual— virtual defense, virtual celebration, virtual graduation. Fun times!

Tell us about your experience in your program. What have you learned that is most valuable?

Above all, I learned the value of kindness and proper communication as the essence of any successful happy journey. Goodwill does not go out of fashion, while your technical skills, particularly in computer engineering and machine learning, have considerably short shelf-lives.

Trust me on this: help others, however you can, and karma will pay you back.

What advice would you give a student entering your degree program?

The only valid universal currency is “time”. When you buy a coffee, you are paying for it with the time you spent to earn that money. Make sure your minutes are well spent. This is a very existential view of the world. Once you establish this, you will regret every sad, anxious, unsatisfying moment. You will enjoy the ride, no matter how rough, and realize that the ride (or this miracle we call life) is the main signal, everything else is noise! I, for one, admit that it is easier said than done.

Besides the above, my professional advice is to diversify your knowledge of research and technical topics even if they are not fully aligned with your research path. We are living in an ever-changing world and the chances of your random bits of information positively impacting your life is not small. Make sure you do some internships. They free up your mind, expand your vision of the world out there, and create opportunities. Contrary to the general advice, internship, i.e., having time away from the PhD research, is a must to avoid tunnel vision in your specialty.

How do you feel your degree has benefitted you compared to a different field of study?

I used to be a full-fledged dentist who got excited with surgical root extraction and the seal of gutta percha at the end of an impeccable root canal therapy (no kidding). Being a dentist came with a different realization of stress compared to the life of a computer scientist/engineer, mainly due to the lack of the undo button! Yet, I miss the everyday personal touch of being a medical doctor, the diversity of everyday interactions with patients whose stories made life exciting, and the short daily doses of small impacts doctors have on the lives of their patients. They come home knowing that they touched someone’s life in a positive way, albeit a tiny touch.

Every field comes with its own challenges and perks. In 2021, there is a lucrative job market and relatively high demand and job security for a machine learning scientist. Building cool products, publishing novel ideas, being around smart people, and the collaborative nature of the engineering work, are all exciting pros. Yet, no matter how good you are at your job, there is a temporal gap between your actions and their eventual impacts on people’s lives, if any. Not to mention, you might potentially interact with lines of code more than with people.

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Amir Abdi studying a dental cast

What are your future plans to make a difference in our world?

Being born and raised in Canada can shape a biased perception of the world, and worse, can blind you to the realities of life beyond the Great White North’s borders. I consider myself fortunate to have been raised outside of north America. I know what it means for the “future to already be here but not very evenly distributed” (William Gibson, paraphrased), and will take steps towards that even distribution. Let’s leave it at that.

Is there anything else about your degree experience you'd like to elaborate on?

PhD graduation is a prominent milestone: end of the decade-long era of academia. It is a sad joyful moment, filled with the intertwined senses of achievement and hints of sorrow as you say farewell to your beloved society of scholars, graduate students, and that faculty position you might have longed for some time.

This can be the story of many high-achieving cohorts. Racing through opportunities year after year, meeting deadlines, hitting goals. Until, eventually, you find yourself “there”, right on the target. It would be nice if you took a long moment to acknowledge the finish line and to let your life plateau. Proactively shift your mental model to stop yourself from racing after a newly set goal. Let your never-lasting "Pursuit of Happyness" (typo intended) to change gears and even come to a full stop. What you have today is your life-long dream, start enjoying it. 

Of course, the quality of your just-completed journey has an undeniable impact on your state of mind. If you withstood a prolonged torment, hoping for a happy ending (Nietzsche, paraphrased), then, you are in for a big surprise. There is no utopia waiting for you at the end of this road. The ride is what must have been enjoyed all along. The joy of existing regardless of how small or big your goals were. If you found yourself at the finish line, I invite you to start the era of self-reflection where you navigate through life in a slower and steadier pace. Cheers!

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