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Featured Student: Ryan Whetten (MS in CS)

I’m Ryan. Born in Atlanta, GA and graduated from high school in San Antonio, TX. I earned my bachelor’s at Brigham Young University. I majored in Statistics (emphasis in biostatistics and a minor in Japanese).

Ryan WhettenWhy a Master’s Degree?

My older brother, who’s always been an influence on me, was working on his PhD in Statistics when I was making the decision to continue my education. He told me that he learned a lot during his undergrad, but his master’s was where he really gained a deeper understanding of statistical methods and more confidence in his abilities. I love learning and so hearing this sparked my interest.

So, my main motivation to do a master’s in CS was NOT because of the hype around data science, promising careers, AI/ML… for me it was my desire to learn more and fine tune my skills that drove me to do a master’s.

Why Computer Science?

It was actually my curiosity in languages and computer vision that drove me to Computer Science (CS).

I’m a bit late to the game; I had never heard of a neural network until 2020 and taught myself the basics of Deep Learning during an internship. I was surprised to see all the data science, statistics, and math (such as multivariable calculus; a subject that I thought I’d never really see again) that went into algorithms for both facial recognition, speech recognition, and translation! I was hooked and wanted to understand more.

So with this desire to learn more about these algorithms, I decided to switch gears from Statistics and apply for CS programs.

Why Boise State University?

The reason why I ended up at BSU was honestly because it was the only one that accepted me. I don’t know if I even would have been accepted to BSU, if my advisor didn’t happen to be working on a research project in the medical field (remember, I emphasized in biostatistics).

This isn’t the most glorious reason for attending, but “when life gives you lemons” you’ve gotta make “lemonade.” I hope that in the following sections you will see how I turned this “lemon” into way more than just “lemonade.”

How were the classes at BSU?

The classes were great! They were difficult, but not too difficult, and they definitely pushed me to the next level. I now feel confident in my data science abilities and coding skills. Through the coursework I was trained to think critically, read research papers, and how to conduct experiments of my own.

Beyond the paragraph above I don’t think I can adequately describe in words how much I’ve grown over the past 1 year and 8 months or so. Going back to the “lemon” metaphor, imagine instead of simply making “lemonade,” the course work at BSU provided me with “seeds” and “fields with good soil” with which I’ve started to plan my own field.

For those interested, below is an outline of the course work I did with some of what I remember learning in each.

First Semester

CS510 – Databases (SQL, Relation Algebra, JAVA, JDBC)

CS533 – Intro to Data Science (basics of cleaning, processing, and getting meaning out of data)

CS597 – Spoken Dialogue Systems (into to my advisor’s research)

Second Semester

CS534 – Machine Learning (Regression, Classification, Decision Trees, Back-propagation)

CS536 – Natural Language Processing (Linguistics, Dynamic Programming, HMM, Transformers)

CS697 – Reinforcement Learning (MDP, Dynamic Programming, Q Learning, Deep RL, AlphaGo)


No class – Came up with thesis idea, wrote proposal

Third Semester

CS536 – Social Media Mining (Graphs, Networks, Fake News detection)

CS593 – Thesis (Proposed and started thesis)

CS 593 Thesis (defended thesis proposal, worked on thesis)

Fourth Semester

CS593 – Thesis (Finished writing thesis and final defense)

What was your thesis about?

My thesis involved analyzing errors in Speech-to-Text (Automatic Speech Recognition) output. For this I got to learn how to implement a variety of pre-built Speech-to-Text algorithms as well as learn how to make my own from scratch. In my thesis, I developed new methods for measuring errors in Speech-to-Text applications and used these methods to improve the performance of the Speech-to-Text algorithm I created from scratch. For the nitty gritty,take a look at my Google scholar page (hopefully I’ll have it up by the time this comes out).

What advice would you give to an undergraduate who is thinking about graduate school?

My first piece would be to focus LESS on the program/school and more on YOU and the PEOPLE who you will be with. Find a place that will be good for you in all aspects of life (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually …). Boise State, with its modern campus, beautiful mountains, and friendly faculty, turned out to be a really good fit for me.

My second piece of advice is to recognize that challenges can be helpful. No matter what your next steps are in life, you will most likely have plenty of challenges (I definitely did throughout my master’s). Looking back now at some of the hardest moments, I’m grateful for them because without them I would not have been able to learn and develop the skills I have now.

My last piece of advice is to act. Do what you can with the resources you have. Try to be productive. The original project that I was originally supposed to do actually fell through. I was supposed to collect data (conversations between doctors and patients) from the local hospital, but due to various issues beginning with COVID, I wasn’t ever able to get the data. I started to get the feeling this might happen coming into the summer because things were moving much slower than expected. I was worried what would I do for my thesis if things didn’t pan out.

This worry forced me to be creative. I came up with an idea for my thesis that involved experiments that I could run on different data if I wasn’t able to collect my own data. So during the summer, I turned this idea into a very rough draft of a thesis proposal. If I had chosen to wait until I got the official word that I wasn’t going to be able to collect the data, I have no idea if I would have done the thesis I did. I don’t know if I would be graduating now, and if I still did manage to graduate on time, I definitely wouldn’t have had the time I needed to code up, run, and write about the experiments properly. In short, I’m graduating now satisfied with my work because I chose to act despite there being unknowns.

What’s Next?

In the Fall of 2022, I was not sure about doing a PhD, but I saw in the Fall of 2022 a post on LinkedIn talking about a PhD with the computer science labs in Avignon and Grenoble. Reading the description, I felt like I would be a good candidate (thanks to all the course work and challenges at BSU) and reached out to one of them, Titouan, to ask what the program and life at university were like. After talking to him, my wife, and my advisor, (who also happened to do his Master’s and PhD in Europe) I decided to apply. I heard back from the professors saying I got the position a bit before Thanksgiving.

Fast forward to now, I’ve now met with the professors, staff, and some students of the lab. I still have a lot to organize before I move and start the PhD, but I’m looking forward to these next steps.