When CS News caught up with Tisch University Professor of Computer Science, Lorenzo Alvisi, to learn about his work on a sponsored pre-doctoral research summer school that he runs in collaboration with an international team, not surprisingly, he has the recent or prospective undergraduate student in mind: “You have chosen to major in CS. Great choice—so many opportunities! But what do you want to do in ten years? And who do you want to be? Perhaps you are curious, or even excited at the idea of research, but it is all a bit hazy. Should you consider a Ph.D.? What is a Ph.D. like, anyway? What will be your options afterwards? And what is it like to choose research as your profession?” To these orienting prompts Alvisi kindly supplies a customarily generous reply: “With the everyday demands of classes, projects, and internships, it is often hard to find the time to seriously consider these questions. The answers, then, often end up being determined not by informed decisions, but by circumstances.”

“Cornell undergraduates are part of one of the world’s top research universities—and even they can have a hard time finding the time and opportunity to thoughtfully explore these questions. And most of their peers in the US and throughout the world are not as lucky,” says Alvisi. “To  become a researcher, you first have to be able to imagine yourself as one, and, for many deeply talented students this is hard to do: sometimes it is because of societal and economic pressures, sometimes because of an unfounded fear of not belonging, of not being ‘good enough.’ I wanted to do something about it,” he recalls.

So, four years ago, Alvisi joined forces with colleagues at Germany’s Max Plank Institute and the University of Maryland to create the Cornell, Maryland, and Max Planck Pre-Doctoral Research School (CMMRS). This week-long school is unconventional in its focus on undergraduates: US-based attendees are typically Sophomores or Juniors. Participants experience an intense week of lectures, informal conversations with guest faculty and fellow students from all over the world, professional development panels with academic and industrial speakers, research poster sessions, and social events. 

CMMRS’s lecturers are world-class researchers from the three institutions, who engage with the attendees during the entire length of the school. Lectures are designed to bring students quickly up to speed with some necessary background, and then to expose them to the lecturer’s current research. Students and faculty share meals and social events: lunches, dinners, and coffee breaks become opportunities to ask questions, share personal experiences, and meet peers from the other side of the world with similar aspirations and trepidations. The goal is not to nudge anyone in any particular direction, but to help everyone discern what is right for them. “It is amazing to see the strong sense of community that develops over a week,” says Alvisi.  

One of CMMRS’s founding principles is to help remove societal and economic barriers that prevent talented students from considering a career in research. To this end, the school is offered free of charge: it covers travel expenses for attendees, lodgings on site, all meals, and any related costs. Lecturers volunteer their service and receive no honorarium. Securing funding is a challenge every year, but the school has so far been able to rely on generous support from the US National Science Foundation and the Max Planck Society, and on the sponsorship of Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Huawei, and Nokia Bell Labs.

In its first three years, the school has taken place in Saarbrücken, Germany; faced this year with the challenge posed by the COVID-19 emergency, the organizers decided to continue to offer the school, but online. During its traditional first-week-of-August time slot, CMMRS ’20 welcomed 116 students from 35 countries and all continents but Antarctica. Chris De Sa and Immanuel Trummer, both CS assistant professors, lectured respectively on “Scalable Machine Learning Algorithms” and on “Learning to Process Data Faster via Reinforcement Learning” and participated in panels and discussions; Alvisi chaired a panel on life as a Ph.D. student and beyond, which included CS Ph.D. Burçu Canakci and Fred Schneider, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Computer Science and former lecturer in CMMRS ’19; and CS Ph.D. student Yunhao Zhang presented a poster with his current research and offered attendees a further dimension of mentorship.

Aahil Awatramani, an undergraduate who attended the school this summer, said: “CMMRS was an exciting and informative week. I was able to talk to many big-name professors in person (and one-on-one) about Ph.D. programs, their research, and their backstories on how they got there. I loved the lectures that we were able to attend. The lectures often came in two pieces, the first gave you a rough overview of the subject and the second went into the professor’s specialization.” Aahil reflects on how CMMRS helped her get perspective on next steps: “Before CMMRS I was on the bench of whether I wanted to do a Ph.D. or not, but after I’m very set on this goal; it cleared up a lot of misconceptions I had and helped me realize the value of a Ph.D.”

Niki Amini-Naieni, another engaged undergraduate participant, said: “CMMRS introduced me to new and interesting research topics in computer science that I had not considered pursuing before, such as adversarial machine learning and formal verification. I loved how the lecturers wove personal anecdotes and inspiring advice from their graduate school experiences into their technical presentations.” When reflecting on the specific attributes of the program that most appealed to her, she noted that her “favorite parts of the lectures were when professors discussed their research and exciting and novel open-ended problems they were working on with students. Oftentimes, these discussions would continue throughout the breakout sessions and even after the school had finished for the day.” Looking back now, she emphasizes how much she “appreciates having the opportunity to first learn about the fields professors studied and to then discuss topics within those fields with professors after their lectures. Even though CMMRS is formally over, I have continued to communicate and to discuss research topics and problems with members of the CMMRS community, and I look forward to potentially working with some of them in the future.”

Alvisi is particularly proud of the diverse group of students that the school has welcomed over the years. “Our students come from all geographic, social, and economic backgrounds, and over 37% of CMMRS alumni are women. Such diversity can be really empowering.  During one of our school dinners, one student told me how, in the train bringing her to Saarbrücken, she had noticed another young woman who, she guessed, might also be headed to the school. Wow, she thought to herself, I may not be the only woman! And then she looked up at the room, smiled, and continued: And instead, look how many of us!”

If you are an undergraduate student interested in pursuing a research career in computer science, consider applying to CMMRS (applications will be available at the end of the Fall 2020 semester) or contacting Professor Lorenzo Alvisi directly at lorenzo@cs.cornell.edu.