Early Impact: Undergraduate Jaewook Lee Learns to Quickly Thrive Through Research

5/10/2022 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Coming to Illinois CS four years ago, Lee set a path and stuck to it. He has studied, interned, worked on startups, and delved into research while here. As he’s set to graduate in May, Lee also earned an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and will begin his PhD next.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

In 2018, undergraduate student Jaewook Lee decided to come to Illinois Computer Science from his home in California for a specific reason.

Illinois CS undergraduate student Jaewook Lee was drawn to research early in his academic career, resulting recently in the NSF Graduate Resarch Fellowship that will help fund his forthcoming PhD work.
Illinois CS undergraduate student Jaewook Lee was drawn to research early in his academic career, resulting recently in the NSF Graduate Resarch Fellowship that will help fund his forthcoming PhD work.

Not only did he already have an eye on embedding himself within the research community here, but Lee also wanted to take full advantage of all that the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign community had to offer his aspirations in technology.

So before entering the research scene, he held summer internships through the Research Park at Illinois. Then he sought out entrepreneurship opportunities, to work with student ran startup companies.

That experience under his belt, he began working on undergraduate research projects with Illinois CS professors Alex Kirlik and Brian Bailey. Over the years, Lee turned lessons and experience here into collaborative relationships with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Michigan, and UCLA.

As he earns his bachelor's degree this May, Lee is also set to begin his PhD with professor Jon Froehlich in the Makeability Lab at the University of Washington. There, he will begin with research funding from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program that he recently earned.

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Lee’s growth through his undergraduate experience here led to research, because of the way he motivates himself and because of the encouragement others offered him along the way.

“My whole process began with a question I would ask myself: How can I make an impact through computing? I have wanted, from the beginning, to make an impact on individual users. For me, the best way to do that was through research,” Lee said. “Interning and working with startups was really rewarding, but I found working on existing applications and adding features to be less impactful than conducting a research project.

“That’s because CS research is designed to push science forward and gives you so much freedom to pursue your ambitions."

When Lee first started studying CS, he came with an admiration for and interest in Virtual and Augmented Reality as an enthusiastic gamer.

The more he worked, studied, and began to dabble in research, the more his thoughts expanded. Lee soon was researching machine learning and data science concepts. Most recently, he has pursued topics within human-computer interaction such as extended reality, context-aware computing and ubiquitous computing.

The first project that resulted in a paper he co-authored was titled “Measuring Complacency in Humans Interacting with Autonomous Agents in a Multi-Agent System” and was published in 2020.

One year after that, Lee was the first author listed on a paper called “What’s This? A Voice and Touch Multimodal Approach for Ambiguity Resolution in Voice Assistants.”

Lee then went on to publish two papers at the prestigious ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI).

Brian Bailey
Brian Bailey

For mentors like Bailey, it was rare to see an undergraduate student insert themselves so gracefully into research at an early stage of their academic journey.

“Jae quickly became a core member of our research team. He contributed to the design and implementation of a feedback visualization tool and helped us deploy and study the tool in a project-based design course. Jae always found time for research,” said Bailey.

Meanwhile, Lee was also building a skillset necessary to succeed in research.

He learned how difficult and rigorous academic writing could be, by first having drafts heavily edited. Through repetition, though, and working with experienced researchers, he and his instructors could see improvement.

“In that moment, when I realized I was going to be a first author and responsible for the writing, I definitely felt it to be as daunting as everyone else thinks it is,” Lee said. “The benefit is the more you write, the more you learn. Whether it was me working with multiple advisors and across different disciplines, or if someone gets to work more closely with one person, the result is that you learn what’s necessary in writing and how to improve.

“It can be scary, but don’t be scared. Others are there to help you and they know you’re an undergraduate student. It quickly becomes so rewarding.”

Just as importantly, Lee was learning to ask the right questions – difficult questions – that lead to funding in the research space.

Already, Lee has stated that his upcoming PhD effort aspires to answer the following question: “How can we design more personalized mobile technologies and software that can better assist each user with their day-to-day life?”

His goal through this work, he has come to realize in this moment, is to enter industry research after his PhD experience.

This belief was bolstered over the past year through a project that included Microsoft Research’s Eyal Ofek – a principal investigator with the EPIC (Extended Perception Interaction and Cognition) team at the Microsoft Research lab.

Their project involves an Open Source Research Collaboration, through which they designed a “Unity toolkit to facilitate remote user studies for VR researchers. This modular and platform-independent toolkit allows researchers to observe participants across multiple remote locations, collect behavioral data, and replay data from multiple media sources.”

“The moment I found out that Dr. Ofek would work with me was one of the greatest days of my life,” Lee said. “Through that experience, I have begun to think I would most like to enter industry research through my PhD efforts.”

Additionally, Lee has worked on a collaborative project with Bailey and Joy Kim of Adobe Research. Together, they conducted a field study using “Decipher,” a tool that facilitates the understanding of large sets of feedback. The system was deployed in one of Bailey’s courses, after which the group observed how students interacted with the tool and submitted those observations as a paper.

Lee considers both experiences crucial to his increased interest in industry research.

“I couldn’t have gotten to this point, though, without the direction of people like professor Bailey and professor Kirlik here at UIUC. The experience I received here as an undergraduate student has given me the background I need to be successful in the field moving forward,” Lee said.

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This story was published May 10, 2022.