As the deadline neared for the submission of her Master of Computing thesis, Feiyue Tao wondered if she had made a mistake in accepting a summer internship with Google. Others in her cohort had dedicated themselves to completing their research full-time, but Tao had decided to take a chance.
“Other students had already finished and submitted their thesis. I had just finished the data collection phase, so I was kind of rushing into finalising the thesis,” she said.
In the end, an inventive use of remote communications for user-interface testing set her research apart, impressing world-leading academics at The Australian National University (ANU) School of Computing, and earning her a Postgraduate Medal for Academic Excellence.
Navigating remote learning
Tao completed undergraduate study at Shandong University in China, and then at the University of Queensland, where the COVID-19 pandemic complicated her final year of a Bachelor of Information Technology.
She arrived at ANU in July 2020, hoping her postgraduate experience would not be similarly interrupted.
“When I was doing my coursework, I was working remotely. When I was back on campus, the main component of my study life was spent on research and tutoring,” Tao said.
She began work as a research trainee with the ANU-affiliated Data61 project at CSIRO in July 2021. However, Tao needed to quickly adjust in response to public health measures in the Australian Capital Territory to continue this work from home.
“I remember the day of lockdown,” she said. “My supervisor from CSIRO made emergency contact with me to get some research equipment from the lab.”
Tao’s research involved using augmented reality to enhance web interfaces and user experience (UX) design.
“I analysed a user’s preferences for the different kinds of interface, layout, design etc, and summarised what might be a good web interface.
She had planned to use in-person testing, but such real-life environments were off the table during a pandemic. So, Tao used virtual reality to simulate physical environments and test augmented reality web interfaces.
“The process became more complex than just inviting people to our lab and to tell them what to do… I needed to prepare instructions so that participants from all over the world can just put on their VR headsets and do my study.”
The experience showed her that, while remote communication has limitations, it is intrinsically tied to the nature of computing. Technology can offer avenues for research and innovation previously unimaginable in traditional academic and workplace settings.
Balancing study and work
Tao was making slow but steady progress collecting data from virtual lab studies, when she was offered an opportunity for a summer internship with Google. She leapt at the chance.
Tao was on-boarded as a Software Engineer in Mobile Development, working remotely with engineers in Sydney. Her valuable contributions were swiftly recognised, and six months before graduating she was offered a full-time position with the company.
Tao continued to work remotely from Canberra while completing her study at ANU. After weeks of intensive work, she submitted her Master of Computing thesis on the final day.
Working full-time while writing a thesis had proved to be a greater challenge than she expected. Tao feared that her busy schedule may have undermined the results. But she hoped for a completion grade, and readied to move to Sydney to join Google in-person after graduation.
You’ve got mail, and a medal
When an email popped up on her phone alerting her that she’d not only completed her program requirements but had been awarded a Postgraduate Medal for Academic Excellence, Tao was caught completely off guard.
“I didn’t know anything about the nomination process,” she said. “It just automatically got sent through telling me I got it.”
Her supervisors Senior Experimental Scientist Dr Matt Adcock from the CSIRO, and ANU Senior Lecturer Charles Martin had found her thesis to be stellar and encouraged Tao to publish.
“Tao showed a great deal of independence and initiative – especially when engaging with a global community of researchers to recruit participants” said Dr Matt Adcock.
The University Medal panellists felt that Tao’s research was both timely and instructive, as web interfaces and mixed reality become more accessible and involved in contemporary life.
Her methodology provides a way forward for the future of the field and will benefit other researchers wishing to develop augmented reality platforms or use virtual reality to conduct their own studies.
Feeling at home at Google
Tao takes away the need to maintain a belief in your own ability and in the work you put forward, whatever the circumstances.
“The experience itself is quite important because even if the result is not as good as you expect, the experiment itself won’t be a failure. You still learn important things from that,” she said.
With her study completed, Tao is applying this foundation in a professional setting, following the pathway provided by Google. She’s worked on the development of Google’s Photo App for Android and is now learning to contribute to new feature launches and major updates for Apple iOS.
Tao is fond of the many opportunities and events available at Google, and volunteers for university outreach programs to mentor others to identify their career needs and goals.
She looks forward to any opportunities to cement the ANU-Google connection she benefits from.
A recent visit from the ANU Computer Science Students’ Association (CSSA) even allowed her to share her journey so far in a serendipitous way.
“I joined the lunch session where I met by surprise a student who I had tutored before. It was nice to catch up with the students and share my Google and ANU experiences.”
Tao now volunteers for university outreach programs that Google runs, hoping to champion the way forward for those who are identifying their own career-focused needs and goals. Tao hopes that soon the free meals Google provides can be shared with other ANU students and Alumni on a similar path to her.