Alumnus Thriving as a Machine Learning Language Researcher

After graduating from MSU in 2011 with degrees in Japanese and Linguistics, Luke Bates went on to earn a master’s degree in Computational Linguistics from Seoul National University with the goal of working on improving Korean-English machine translation. Bates still lives in South Korea, where he is a Researcher at Chung-Ang University and an English Teacher to doctors at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital.

What is your current position at Chung-Ang University and the responsibilities of that position?
My official job title is Researcher, but the work I do is quite diverse. I’m currently instructing the other researchers at the Center for Chemical Dynamics in Living Cells (CDLC) on the theory, proper usage, and implementation of machine learning, as the center works to apply machine learning in the context of quantitative biology. I am the only native speaker of English at the center, and so I edit most of the papers we publish, which have appeared in prestigious journals such as Nature Communications, Physical Review Letters, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Additionally, I conduct weekly English classes with the researchers and administrative staff.

What specific research are you currently doing?
We are exploring the extension of the biological network understanding and analysis using machine learning and the theories developed at the CDLC. It’s quite hard to talk about in detail without becoming technical, but essentially, we are trying to use statistics to quantify and understand fluctuation and its influence in biology. We also are working on drug creation using machine learning.

How has your Linguistics and Japanese degrees from MSU prepared you for your position at Chung-Ang University?
Learning Linguistics and Japanese trained me to look for and quickly recognize patterns in data. Once you are able to notice subtle patterns, learning anything becomes much easier, which has been invaluable in refining my mathematical/statistical analysis and computer programming skills. These skills are fundamental for any machine learning practitioner, so I think my degrees taught me the most important skill, which is how to learn new skills.

I am often praised for my editing ability and clear explanations, not only in the context of language but also in the context of machine learning theory/implementation lectures and demonstrations. I owe these skills to my degrees at MSU.

I also live in Asia, often travel to Japan, and interact with Japanese people, so speaking Japanese and understanding the Japanese way of thinking have made it much easier to make a home in this part of the world. Japanese also introduced me to the Korean culture and language, which are invaluable for life in South Korea.

My degree in Linguistics showed me how to think about language as a mechanism, rather than an abstract concept that conveys my stream of consciousness. As such, I am able to learn new languages, even computer languages, faster than other learners. As I can now think about language objectively, teaching and editing English come to me nearly effortlessly. I find I have no trouble explaining complex metaphors or idiomatic language in an easy to understand and systematic manner, which has made me an effective teacher. I am often praised for my editing ability and clear explanations, not only in the context of language but also in the context of machine learning theory/implementation lectures and demonstrations. I owe these skills to my degrees at MSU.

What is it like teaching English in South Korea, especially to doctors at Samsung hospital? Why did teaching English as a second language interest you?
Working at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital is a lot of fun because I get the chance to work closely with some of the greatest medical minds in the world. Teaching English is rewarding because I know my background allows me to talk about English in a way that is easy for foreign learners to understand and develop from. Additionally, I like finding parallels between English, Korean, and Japanese, and trying to explain such concepts in Korean or Japanese is a good way to push the limits of my foreign language abilities.

Why did you choose to attend Seoul National University (SNU) and earn your master’s degree in Computational Linguistics?
I became very interested in artificial intelligence and utilizing computers and statistics to represent and use language when I was discovering statistical analysis during my work on my senior thesis in Linguistics at MSU. I wanted to learn more about this field, but specifically, I wanted to see if I could use my knowledge of Korean and linguistics to improve Korean-English machine translation, which is the topic of my master’s dissertation. I chose SNU because the Computational Linguistics program there often collaborates with the industry, which allowed me to work for Samsung as a Language Engineer on a machine learning and machine translation joint project between the company and the university. I think the biggest problem with linguistics is that it often cannot be applied practically at an industry level, but computational linguistics defies this problem, making it a challenging but fun field to work in.

Man in white coat accepting an award on stage
Luke Bates completing an advanced Korean course at Korea University during his Fulbright grant.

Why did you choose to move to South Korea?
I originally choose to move to South Korea as a Fulbright graduate fellow and stayed after I was awarded the Korean Government Scholarship, which allowed me to study Korean for a year at a university and complete my master’s in Computational Linguistics, fully funded. South Korea is a great place to live because of its great social programs, high standard of living, cleanliness, and low crime/violence. Additionally, Korean people are some of the friendliest and funniest people you could ever hope to call your friends or family. As I am married to a South Korean, I do both. Life here is easy if you speak English, and even easier if you also speak Korean, which is why I enjoy it so much.

What is it like living in a different country, especially one where English isn’t an official language? What were some challenges you ran into (or still run into)? Was it hard to adjust at first?
It’s very easy to feel isolated because there are so few people who understand you or your life experience. However, if you try to learn the language and make friends, I actually think it can be easier to make meaningful connections. You are at first very interesting to strangers, but you also have a perspective that they don’t. You see the world in a way that is completely new to them, and I have found people respond really well to fresh perspectives in Asia, if given with care. The biggest challenges I have had to deal with are understanding Korean and Japanese bureaucracy, which are even more convoluted than American bureaucracy, if you can believe it. Adjusting to life in a new country takes time and is different for everyone. That’s why I think it’s important to find and make friends fast, so you have people who can help you adjust and make life that much easier.

My degree in Linguistics showed me how to think about language as a mechanism, rather than an abstract concept that conveys my stream of consciousness. As such, I am able to learn new languages, even computer languages, faster than other learners.

Why was your MSU education special? What lessons did you learn here
I was homeschooled in high school and went to Lansing Community College before attending MSU. I was always a little self-conscious about this part of my academic background, and before I went to MSU, I worried that I wasn’t smart enough, despite doing quite well in my studies elsewhere. When I got to MSU, I saw that I was still an excellent student in all my classes despite my self-consciousness. This gave me a lot of confidence and taught me perhaps the most important lesson of my life, which is that no matter the environment, you can learn anything, and ultimately learning depends on the learner and no one else. What’s special about MSU is the tools for learning are given in abundance to make this process easier and more rewarding. I am grateful to my excellent professors and to MSU for showing me that others can help, but at the end of the day, success and progress have to be a personal decision.

When did you study abroad in Japan, and how did your study abroad experience contribute to your overall education at MSU?
I studied abroad in Japan in the summer of 2009, which saddens me to realize that was 10 years ago. Before going to Japan, Japanese and language learning in general were hobbies or academic interests. Living in Japan and being forced to interact with people who cannot speak English made me realize language learning is actually an important tool for surviving in this world. It made me see the world as more than just America, as this was my first time abroad. Because I was speaking Japanese every day and my own survival depended on my ability to convey and understand concepts in a foreign language, my ability increased tremendously, but I also learned what is important to understand when studying a language. When you start learning a new language, there is simply too much information, making it difficult to know where to start and where to focus your efforts. Studying in Japan taught me what is important for survival, which helped me pick up Korean very quickly.

man and woman sitting next to one another under an awning outside
Luke Bates (right) while on his study abroad trip to Japan in 2009.

What was your senior thesis about? What went into this research, and what did you get out of that experience?
The senior thesis for my degree in Japanese was a literary analysis of the “Tale of Genji.” Specifically, I examined how the narrator punished Genji when the character behaved in a manner unbecoming of a father. This required detailed analysis of the text both in English and in the original Japanese, while also reading many academic articles about the book. I learned that every word an author uses is significant and deliberate and when you take the text on the page for granted, you’re missing out on worlds of experience and fun that can come from analyzing literature.

The senior thesis for my degree in Linguistics was a sociolinguistic analysis of how the race of a non-native speaker of a language affects the perception of accentedness for native speakers. Specifically, I presented native Korean speakers with audio of other native speakers speaking Korean. However, I told the former group that the audio recording was of non-native Korean speakers of different races. I asked the participants to then rate the level of accentedness and awkwardness of the non-native Korean speakers, despite it actually being native Korean audio. I then used statistical analysis to determine how race seemed to affect the perception of accentedness, even when there is no foreign accent present. I found that perception of accentedness and awkwardness is indeed statistically correlated with the perceived race of the speaker. This experience sparked an interest in me for using statistics to understand data, which has guided my career ever since. Additionally, it showed me I shouldn’t take critiques about my accent in Japanese or Korean very seriously.

What advice would you give to students who are looking to live outside the United States after they graduate?
My first piece of advice would be to learn the language, even if only a little, because people become much more responsive if they know they can use their own language when communication in English fails. Also, while cultures are different, you will be more surprised by the similarities than the differences, so try not to think of your new home as such a different place. Finally, when you do find differences, do not be outwardly judgmental of them because it is unlikely many of your new neighbors will share your view, and even fewer will respond well to open criticism of their culture. 

What’s next for you? Do you plan to stay in South Korea or travel elsewhere?
That is a great question and the answer changes daily. Sometimes, I want to return to Michigan to be closer to my family. Sometimes, I want to move to Japan, New Zealand, or Europe and continue to develop my skills there. And finally, sometimes, I can see myself living in Korea forever. We’ll see, I guess.

(Header image: Luke Bates with his wife and family after graduating from Seoul National University with a master’s degree in Computational Linguistics.)