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Rachael Reitz

NLP Conference Success for Danae

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NLP Conference Success for Danae

It is a busy time of year for most, not least our PhD students. We caught up with Danae, from our first cohort, to find out about her recent success and attendance at three different NLP conferences.

‘Attending academic conferences is an important way to build skills as a PhD student. You get the opportunity to ask questions, get new ideas, ask for practical advice and meet professionals in the field. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, this year most conferences took place online. I recently attended 3 virtual conferences: ACL, EMNLP, and AACL.’

ACL 2020

The 58th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) took place online from 5th to 10th July 2020. ACL is the leading conference in the field of computational linguistics, covering a wide variety of research areas dealing with computational approaches to natural language.

In this conference, I presented the paper Analyzing Political Parody in Social Media. This paper is co-authored with Antonis Maronikolakis, my supervisor Nikolaos Aletras (University of Sheffield), and with Daniel Preoţiuc-Pietro (Bloomberg). We present the first study of parody using methods from computational linguistics and machine learning. We introduce a freely available large-scale dataset containing a total of 131,666 English tweets from 184 real and corresponding parody accounts, and evaluate and analyze a range of neural models achieving high predictive accuracy.

Also, I attended a mentoring session led by Dr. Alona Fyshe from University of Alberta, where PhD students could ask general questions. A common concern among students is how to balance work and social life. Dr. Fyshe recommended the book Deep Work: Rules for Concentrated Success in a Distracted World, a guide to intense concentration in a distraction-free environment that leads to rapid, efficient learning and results. She reminded us to have fun, too!

EMNLP 2020

The 2020 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP) took place online from 16th to 20th November 2020. The Keynote by Dr. Janet Pierrehumbert, from University of Oxford, discussed the importance of the effects of context when determining the efficiency of NLP systems, as well as the variability in language among individuals. She reminded us to be cautious of what we are evaluating. For example, when using annotators, we should take into account that annotation depends on the point of view and lived experience of the participants, thus, we shouldn’t treat annotators as having access to ground truth. 

AACL 2020

The 1st Conference of the Asia-Pacific Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (AACL) took place online from 4th to 7th December 2020. In this conference I presented the paper Point-of-Interest Type Inference from Social Media Text. This work is co-authored with Daniel Preoţiuc-Pietro (Bloomberg), and my supervisor Nikolaos Aletras (University of Sheffield). We present the first study on the relationship between language of a social media message, and the type information associated with the point of interest (POI) the message was sent from. We develop a large-scale dataset of tweets mapped to their POI category, and conduct an analysis to uncover characteristics specific to place type. Also, we train predictive models to infer the POI category using only the text of the tweet and the posting time. Inferring the place type from the text could help geographers and social scientists research mobility trends, and how people interact with places in real-time.

Interspeech 2020

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The CDT at Interspeech

Within the CDT there is an emphasis on attending and participating in academic conferences. Not only to understand the latest developments in the field, but to network and communicate with the wider SLT community. Four of our students from across the two cohorts attended this year’s Interspeech Conference

Introduction from Hussein

Interspeech is one of the foremost academic conferences for Speech and Language Technology. It incorporates a variety of specialities and disciplines and provides a forum to discuss and share the latest research and innovations. 

This year’s Interspeech was scheduled to be held in Shanghai; however, it was converted to a fully virtual conference. As an attendee this was extremely beneficial as all sessions were timed and organised so I could easily participate and discuss further with the authors of certain papers.


This year has been especially good for the University’s Speech and Hearing (SpandH) research group. As a CDT student this is inspiring to see and be involved in.

Paper Spotlight

Our Cohort 2 member, Jonathan Clayton, had a paper published this year. 

‘The paper adapts the work which I produced as part of my MSc project with another student and supervisors at the University of Edinburgh. In this work, we investigated the utility of lightweight EEG (ElectroEncephaloGraphy) devices for the decoding of spoken, heard and imagined speech from brainwave signals. The research was aimed at contributing towards the development of brain-computer interfaces which could be used as communication aid for people with speech deficits or impairments. The work involved the collection of a dataset containing EEG recordings, which has been made publicly available.’

Interspeech Mentoring 

Meg attended one of the mentoring sessions available.

‘Instead of joining hundreds of other academics, professionals, and students in Shanghai, I had to join from the comfort of my bedroom. Nevertheless, this year’s ISCA-SAC provided an incredible opportunity to talk with industry professionals and ask questions about their experiences in moving between industry and academia. With our industry links being a big part of the CDT at Sheffield, it feels like my options are open for both staying and progressing in academia, or making the move over to industry. This mentoring session let me talk with Visar Berisha, associate professor at Arizona State University, and Rosario Signorello, a linguist team lead at Apple in Barcelona. Both had different perspectives on the pros and cons of staying in academia vs moving into industry, but two key pieces of advice were mirrored by both; find the things you want to prioritise and don’t feel bad making career decisions based on these (be it staying close to family or accepting positions further afield to experience more of the world), and it is going to be hard work no matter where you end up. Luckily the CDT is keeping us busy enough to get used to this one!’

Welcome Cohort 2!

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The new cohort has arrived!

We’re really pleased to have recently welcomed our second cohort of PhD students to the CDT. All of these eleven students have exceptionally strong and diverse academic and professional backgrounds, which help to make our centre a vibrant place to learn new skills and techniques and undertake ambitious research. These academic backgrounds include; mathematics, physics, languages, linguistics, statistics, computer science and engineering disciplines. Not to mention varied previous career experience including secondary school teaching, academic research, industrial research, and AI software development. 

The last few weeks have been an exciting time – they’ve been getting to know each other, their fellow students in cohort 1, as well as all the academic staff involved in the CDT. Despite the constraints associated with the pandemic, we were still able to organise a busy and varied induction week to get them settled into life at Sheffield and the CDT while conforming with all the national and university safety guidelines. 

The CDT’s innovative Postgraduate Diploma in Speech and Language Technologies Leadership (which is integrated with the PhD and runs throughout their 4 year programme) has kicked off and they are already actively involved in journal clubs, the collation of SLT-related MOOC resources, and a full-cohort 6-month SLT-related R&D group project! 

What they say; 

One of our new students, Jonathan, says I am excited to be involved in an interesting, collaborative programme. So far, it has been slightly different from my expectations of a standard PhD being a completely solitary endeavour (ironically, despite the social distancing). I am looking forward to learning more from professors and fellow students. The mini-project that we have just embarked upon (creating a virtual “reader’s companion” to assist with remembering events from a novel) looks to be both challenging and stimulating.


Another of our new students, Guanyu, adds “One of the most exciting moments for me in 2020 was receiving the offer of a place on the CDT programme. As a language teacher, I appreciate the opportunity to join the programme and see what SLTs can do regarding second language acquisition and cross-cultural communication. Thanks to the openness of the programme, I can learn from classmates and senior student fellows who come from different backgrounds. I can truly feel the diversity and support in various activities.”

Rhiannon had this to say “The first few weeks have involved lots and lots of reading. My background is physics and statistics, so I’ve never studied SLTs directly, and filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge has taken me in a lot of different directions. The activities we’ve been doing have really helped, such as reading specific papers for the Journal Club, or collating online resources that we can refer to later. It’s also good to have the rest of the cohort – we’ve got a mixed bag of interests, so we should be able to help each other out! The cohort-based group structure is one of the things that drew me to the CDT.”


We really look forward to getting to know cohort 2 better over the coming weeks and months while supporting them through their journey to achieving their PhD with Integrated PGDip.

Gearing up for Cohort 2

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Cohort 2 are on their way…

The count down has begun. We have recruited eleven outstanding students to start our program in September 2020.

In early August we had an online Q&A session for our new starters with the CDT team and some of cohort 1 members. It was a chance for them to see some friendly faces and ask any questions they had about preparing to come to Sheffield and embarking on a PhD.

The CDT team are busily making plans for their Induction Week and all the new activities for 2020/21. We cannot wait to meet them in person but, rest assured, all our plans conform to Government and University guidance.

To help our new members of the CDT, we asked one of last year’s students if they had any advice to share…

Meg’s Top Tips for new PhD students

  1. Say “yes” to everything at the beginning then decide what you like the most even, for example, talks you don’t think you’ll be interested in because you never know!

  2. You’re gonna be super super busy the first couple of months so use each other for support

  3. Don’t let impostor syndrome get you. Everyone is at different levels and some people will know more than you, you just need to accept that and use it to your advantage – everyone has knowledge to share.

  4. Learn how to code in Python!

  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

International Women’s Day 8th March

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In celebration of International Women’s day, I sat down with Dr Heidi Christensen and our CDT students Meg and Danae to talk about their experiences as a woman in Computer Science. Computer Science is a very interdisciplinary area of study and research, which has traditionally suffered from a gender imbalance. 

Our students have come into the CDT from a wide range of mixed academic backgrounds. We talked about what it was like to come from different backgrounds and perspectives. From Linguistics, where there was a large majority of women, to Computer Engineering where the scales were tipped heavily in the other direction. 

‘I worked as a data scientist for two years and was the only female data scientist. It could be difficult at times as I felt I had to prove my knowledge.’

‘I was in a cohort of mainly women but the majority of lecturers were male.’ 

The CDT, in particular, is focused on closing the gender gap by seeking out and accepting students from a wider range of backgrounds. Along with this ethos, the Department is working hard to bring a balance through a variety of initiatives including the Athena SWAN award. You can read more about this here:

‘When I first came to Sheffield I was impressed with the balance.’ 

‘I had been warned that coming into Computer Science, I would have to work harder to be listened to, but generally that has not been the case for me. It has not been too different to my past experiences or too steep a learning curve.’

There are still barriers that exist, including; the ‘stereotype’ of what a computer scientist looks like; the idea that someone working with computers being a ‘hacker’; and myths around certain subjects being for boys and for girls, that should be broken. 

‘At first I thought it was a brave decision to choose a career in Computer Science, but going forward it shouldn’t be seen as being brave, it’s just another option that is there.’

‘I wish I had known at a younger age that you can work with language alongside computers. And that there is a lot of room in Computer Science for the things that I am interested in.’

We rounded off our discussion with advice for encouraging more women to get involved in Computer Science. The key being increasing awareness of what options are out there and a greater understanding about the broad area of engineering. 

‘Find what it is you can contribute: the different point of view you bring and what you have to give that is different. Be yourself.’ 

‘Be proud of your background and what you can bring. You have to find your own feet.’ 

You can find out more about the Sheffield Women in Computer Science Society (SWiCS) here and see how you can get involved;

PhD Project Proposal Launch

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Our CDT manages PhD projects in a slightly different way from a conventional PhD studentship. All of our students undertake an intensive 6 month programme of training covering research skills, core SLT skills, and broader time and project management skills.

During this time, we work with our industrial partners to gather a selection of PhD project ideas which are industrially driven and offer great scope for academic research leading to a PhD. The remaining 3.5 years of their studentship will then be focused on this research project.

PhD Project Proposal Launch Event

This week we internally launched the PhD project proposals to our students and academic supervisors.

We received 32 projects from 12 industry partners in total (and we expect to receive a few more in the coming days). This gives our eight students an exceptional choice of areas to work in.

The projects are drawn from a broad range of SLT topics including; pure audio processing, speech processing, and traditional natural language processing.

The range of applications is just as broad covering; medical, educational, entertainment, competitor analysis and customer engagement domains.

What’s next for our students?

The students are excitedly reviewing all their project options and have a timeline for discussion with supervisors and industry partners to refine projects before final allocations.

PhD projects for cohort 1 will start in April. Watch this space for more info…

Meet Hussein

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Hussein Yusufali

Academic Background

BSc Physics, University of Kent

Research Interests

Emotion in speech

What was it about the CDT programme that most appealed to you?

The CDT allows multidisciplinary backgrounds to enrol and gain fundamental foundational skills within the first six months of the programme.

The opportunity to work alongside very reputable industry partners and building industrial contacts throughout the PhD.

Having an enhanced RTSG budget to fund conference travel or educational needs is a big bonus.

The Personal Development Project (PDP), which is alongside the PhD, that has the potential to be very unique and innovative.

What are you enjoying the most about the programme so far?

Having the support of the cohort. As well as working with very knowledgeable and world-leading academics in the fields of NLP and Speech.

Using the various facilities and services provided by the Department of Computer Science, to be able to gain fundamental knowledge and ability, which will be essential for my PhD.

Can you describe a typical day?

The programme is quite flexible. Usually when I first arrive at the CDT work-space I check emails and correspondence etc. Then the rest of my day could be made up of a variety of activities including;

  • Read research papers for book club or journal club
  • Meet with academics or supervisors
  • Optional module work for the semester
  • Work with the rest of the cohort on group work, such as the mini-project

If you could give one piece of advice to current students or recent graduates interested in the CDT, what would it be?

Do not be afraid to contact the team if you have any queries or particular research interests you feel may be suited to the CDT.

Validate AI Conference 2019

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Conferences and the CDT

As part of our PhD programme, our students are supported with attending  a variety of conferences that cover the wide range of SLT subjects.

In November one of our students from cohort 1, Will, took a trip down to the Royal Society in London to attend the Validate AI conference

What Will said about the day;

‘It was a very unique conference to attend. This was because the sole focus of the conference was to try and answer the question of “how do we validate AI?”. There was a lot of discussion around this question and how it applies to particular industries, such as the automotive industry, financial sector and public sector.

Some of the common themes throughout the day included:

  • Validation & verification of AI systems
  • The triple helix (public, private and academic institutions cooperating)
  • Regulation & ethics of AI
  • Developing robust & explainable AI

Overall this was a really fascinating conference to attend with some really important questions being raised and a lot of people trying to think ahead for what are the challenges of the future in the field of AI. Many of these questions will have an impact on the field of speech and language technology in a profound way, particularly with regards to the tools we use and the way we handle the personal data involved in developing speech and language models.’

A Huge Welcome to Cohort 1

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They have arrived!

A big welcome to our first cohort. They arrived on 30 September 2019 and are currently getting settled in. There’s quite a lot to take in over the first few weeks and months.

Who are they? 

We have a cohort of 8 exceptionally strong students joining the CDT this year: Tom, Will, Sebastian, Peter, Claudia, Danae, Hussein and Meg. They come from a diverse range of backgrounds including: forensic speech science, music technology, maths, physics, languages, linguistics, psychology, computer sciences, and engineering disciplines. This wide range is essential to excel within the unique training environment and ambitious research opportunities the CDT offers.

So far…

They have had an exciting induction to get familiar with the campus and each other. The first few months are designed to provide them with a thorough understanding of foundational Speech and Language Technology topics through a combination of bespoke courses as well as existing taught modules.

What’s next? 

From early next year they will be working with the CDT team to refine PhD project ideas with our industrial partners with the aim of starting their PhD research from April 2020.

Countdown to New Cohort

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Countdown to our First Induction

The CDT will be welcoming our first students at the Induction events scheduled for next week, starting on the on 30 September 2019. The students will have the opportunity to; familiarise themselves with the CDT programme; meet the CDT team, department staff and academics; settle into their new surroundings and work space. 

More about Cohort 1

We have a cohort of exceptionally strong students joining the CDT this year. They come from a diverse range of backgrounds including maths, physics, languages, linguistics, psychology, computer sciences and engineering disciplines. This wide range is essential to excel within the unique training environment and ambitious research opportunities the CDT offers.

We really look forward to getting to know them and support them through their journey to achieving their PhD with Integrated PGDip.