Xin Huang Pushes past her Comfort Zone

Xin Huang, a 4th year Ph.D. student in computer science, attributes her success in winning a Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology 2016-17 Schlumberger Graduate Fellowship to her ability to push past her comfort zone.

“It’s like Matt Might says in ‘The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.’,” she said. “There is a broad circle of knowledge, and in college you begin to learn about one general area, then you narrow your focus in your Ph.D. research. Once you identify the edge of human knowledge for that specific area, you try to break through it.”

She said this illustration applies to many life situations as well. One of the first times she purposely pushed out of her comfort zone was not pursuing an industry job after completing her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering EE. Huang said, “I wasn’t ready to stop learning. When I looked at how many years of my life I would spend in industry, I felt I would have plenty of time to work after getting a Ph.D.”

Once she decided to pursue graduate school, she considered a range of options including electrical and computer engineering and computer science. Rice’s location and the almost perfect match of her interests with those of her advisor, Eugene Ng, prompted her to choose Computer Science. “So I picked Rice, but I was not sure whether or not I could succeed in CS because I had not taken many of the principal courses,” she said.

Huang advises other students to lay a strong foundation so that they can push past their own comfort zones when the opportunity arises. To combat her anxiety about the CS program, she enrolled in multiple COMP courses for undergraduates at Rice to quickly expand her knowledge circle in that area.

Coupled with her background in EE, Huang’s new grasp on CS helped her identify a research focus in network infrastructure. “Although CS was originally beyond my comfort zone, it turned out to be a perfect match for my research interests,” she said.

Early in her Ph.D. program, Huang used a travel grant from Rice’s CS department to attend a conference on computer networks. “I was nervous because I’m rather shy,” she said, “and I didn’t even have a research interest defined then. But I pushed past my shyness in order to meet a lot of people working in different aspects of network research – like software defined networks, flow scheduling and network policy verification.”

She recommends other students to read about conference papers ahead of time, then connect with the authors at the conferences. Huang used this strategy and said, “Meeting these new friends was so helpful for me. We still maintain contact with each other to discuss research problems and recommend papers to read on various topics. Connecting with people who were researching different areas helped me define my own research within the big picture.”

In the fall, Huang presented a paper on optical switch scheduling for a prestigious conference on networking, the Association of Computing Machinery 12th International Conference on emerging Networking EXperiments and Technologies (ACM CoNEXT 2016). She said, “Currently, I’m working on optical switches, but I also explore other interests that contribute to my overall research objectives. So I’ve come to know not just my specialty area, but how all the components of a network work together.”

Although she postponed a career in industry while pursuing a Ph.D., Huang actively pursued internships and worked at Google for two summers. “That first Google internship was in network infrastructure and exposed me to production systems serving billions of users. It also made me more confident about my coding. The second internship led me into a different area – working on schedulers for massive-scale computing clusters – and my manager was extremely helpful in teaching me all kinds of research skills and tips, like using an SQL database to efficiently store and query experimental data. That really helped streamline my research approach.”

Her advice for prospective graduate students is to set up their basic circle of knowledge and to be prepared to step out of their comfort zones. Huang said, “Don’t be afraid to step out there. You are never ready.  Meanwhile, put in daily efforts and work hard on your current circle of knowledge, preparing yourself for the future exploration as much as possible.”