Diving into Blue Waters: Wen-Rui Liao

With a father and a brother who are both electrical engineers in Singapore, Wen-Rui Liao came to UC Berkeley knowing that he wanted to learn about both software and hardware and their interfaces.  He has been watching the ways that new technologies are impacting so many aspects of people’s everyday lives and wanting to become involved in this sort of technology development.  In Singapore, however, high school education is very formalized, and computer science has not yet reached the classroom, though Wen-Rui predicts that it will get there soon.  So he taught himself and started a makers club at his high school, but still he was not fully prepared for CS 61A when he arrived at Berkeley in Fall 2016. “It was my first time going through the rigor of Computer Science and the logic behind it and problem solving with it.”

Since he came from an area with a weak background in CS, Wen-Rui was eligible to become a member of the CS Scholars program for Fall 2016, joining a cohort of students taking CS 61A with a dedicated discussion and lab session.  He found the Fall semester challenging, both because he was dealing with culture shock, and because he was taking a really heavy load of classes: CS 61A, Physics 7A, Math 53, R&C 5A, and a Decal course.  And two clubs. “I overloaded myself,” he admits. In the Spring, he scaled back a bit and found himself enjoying the experience a lot more.

In the meantime, former EECS Diversity Director Tiffany Reardon had come to talk to the CS Scholars about applying to the Blue Waters Institute and doing research as an undergraduate.  The opportunity sounded exciting to Wen-Rui, and he applied.  He thought that his chances of being accepted were slim when the application asked about his experience with a number of areas, such as parallel computing, and he had no experience with any of them. Still he pressed forward and asked Professor Jim Demmel to be his advisor if he should win the research funding.  Professor Demmel agreed!  And then he learned that he’d been chosen to receive funding.

After Wen-Rui was selected as one of the winners of the Blue Waters funding, he went for two weeks to their center in Champaign, Illinois for training on their supercomputer as well as for lectures on topics like applying to graduate school.  He and one other person were the only students from California, and meeting other students from around the country was  one of the aspects of that experience that he really enjoyed.  Now that he’s back, he’s enjoying working with Professor Demmel’s group, which he will continue to do throughout the year.  Though he finds the work very challenging, he says that Professor Demmel has been extremely patient, even though he’s also serving as the EECS Chair this year. Wen-Rui’s goal for the year is writing a paper, which would be presented at a Blue Waters symposium next June.

Now that he’s beyond the culture shock and the impulse to take too many classes, Wen-Rui encourages others to look around and take the initiative to do something beyond taking classes.

“Berkeley has so many opportunities but you have to reach out and find them. I think sometimes in the EECS Department there tends to be kind of a rat race going on, with everyone going for AI or Machine Learning.  What I’m doing counts as benchmark optimization, and it’s not the most sexy; it’s not like Machine Learning. I guess my advice is that you shouldn’t enter the rat race just because everyone is doing machine learning, everyone is doing big data. There are other fields that are really, really interesting to work on as well, and benchmark optimization is a fundamental building block of other fields as well.”