Linguistics Department

Jessy Li and the Allure of Computers, Pizza, and Hot Chocolate

Jessy Li’s interest in computers began early. She recalls assembling PCs for fun with her father in the late 1990s, an experience that sparked a fascination with computer science that would continue to develop over the years. “At the time I was just carried away by the fun of writing instructions for the computer, and sealing it up so it appears to do ‘magic,’” she remembers, but she also “had the gut feeling that computers would become an integral part of our daily life, and learning to control these machines fundamentally would be useful.”

That early interest in computer science, fueled by a special STEM class in high school, led Li to a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and then to a second bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. The move from Shanghai to Ann Arbor required some cultural adjustments, of course, but Li quickly latched on to two new favorites: cheese pizza and hot chocolate. It was an unexpected culinary pairing that became her lunch of choice during her first semester in Michigan, and almost ten years later, Li still loves both of those early favorites.

As Li progressed in her academic career, her focus began to evolve, and she turned her attention to a long-time interest in linguistics. “While my passion first manifested itself in computer science, I am always fascinated by human language, the structure, ambiguity, and complexity that is one of the hallmarks of being human.” She was drawn to both machine learning and computational linguistics, but ultimately Li decided that computational linguistics best connected her passion for programming and her fascination with understanding and modeling the workings of language.

Li completed her Ph.D. in Computational Linguistics and Natural Language Processing at the University of Pennsylvania. Her doctoral research focused on computational discourse processing, “that is, to computationally model how information is organized into textual units such as sentences and clauses, e.g., the level of detail that goes into text, and the relations between units.” This knowledge of discourse, says Li, “is crucial in determining text structure, evaluating the salience and relevance of information, and assessing coherence and reading complexity.”

Li joined our department in fall 2017, where she became part of the computational linguistics community in the department and across campus. She describes computational linguistics as an exciting field, one that brings together two distinct disciplines to develop technology that helps human beings interact more efficiently with machines and with each other. Though she admits there are challenges in tackling any interdisciplinary field, Li has found that looking at problems through the dual lenses of computer science and linguistics can produce remarkable insights. “For example, using computational tools and analyzing data at scale helped me to understand what makes a text difficult for a child or a non-native speaker to understand, so we can then aim for tools that address the gaps.” That, Li says, is truly rewarding work.

Her teaching, too, has already proven to be rewarding. In Li’s first year at UT, she taught both a graduate computational linguistics research seminar and “Language and Computers,” an undergraduate class discussing the challenges of language technology and social issues such as privacy. Her students came from very different backgrounds, and she learned a lot from their diverse views, ideas, and thought processes. Li found it gratifying to hear undergraduate students say that her class sparked an interest in learning more about computational linguistics.

The transition to Austin has been a welcome one, both professionally and personally, and Li says the thing she loves best about UT is its collaborative environment. The computational linguistics/natural language processing community on campus is very close; they gather for weekly reading groups and often work together on research projects. Li is happy to make her home here in Austin, which she says is “a truly vibrant place [that] strikes an amazing balance between Shanghai (where I came from), and Ann Arbor Michigan (where I went to college).”

Now that Jessy Li has settled into life at UT, she looks ahead to the future of computational linguistics. With the proliferation of language technology—everything from chatbots to web searches to live translation—the field is booming. With this surge in interest, new advances in both computer science and linguistics may answer some of the fundamental questions that Li believes are at the heart of her field of study:

“How do we model the interface between discourse and semantics? How to build intelligent machines whose behaviors are not a black box, but explainable to humans? How to address the social biases and privacy issues brought by language technology? How to develop techniques that are generalizable to the 6k languages in the world?”

Li will do her part to answer some of those fundamental questions with continued work at the interface of computer science and linguistics. Her research now focuses on computational discourse and pragmatics. Of the future of her own work, Li says, “There are two main threads: one is to advance our understanding of how information is organized in text; specifically, when do people make a general statement, when do people provide specific details, and why. Second, I’m studying language use in social media (e.g., the specificity of language and the use of vulgarity) and the impact of user demographics on language use. In the future, I hope to build techniques of language understanding and generation that truly bridge intelligibility and comprehension gaps, by accounting for a person’s background, developing generalizable systems, and applying them to inter-disciplinary research.” 

If Li’s past is any indication, she will continue to find ways to merge her passion for programming and her love of language to seek answers to the ever-changing questions posed by the shifting landscape of technology. We welcome her to UT and to the Department of Linguistics, and we look forward to watching where her evolving research carries her (and us) in the years to come.




Assistant Professor Jessy Li

  • Department of Linguistics

    University of Texas at Austin
    305 E. 23rd Street STOP B5100
    Robert L. Patton Hall (RLP) 4.304
    Austin, TX 78712