Zachary Feng — Joint Honours Mathematics and Computer Science (B. Sc.)

Zachary Feng currently studies in the Joint Honours Mathematics and Computer Science program at McGill University. He shares his experiences making the transition between programs, adapting to university life and interning abroad.

Zachary Feng (center) at DLR during his 2018 summer internship in Germany

Interviewer’s note: the first portion of this interview is related to the interviewee’s academic career at McGill University. The second portion of this interview is related to an internship opportunity acquired by the interviewee.

Tell us about what you (have) studied at McGill

Previously, I studied Mechanical Engineering, but later fostered a passion for math and I switched into the Joint Honours Mathematics and Computer Science program.

Interviewer’s note: for more information regarding the joint honours Mathematics and Computer science program at McGill University, please refer to https://www.mcgill.ca/mathstat/undergraduate/programs/b-sc/joint-honours-mathematics-and-computer-science-b-sc

What are some pros and cons about your program?

Pros:

I like that the degree places a lot of emphasis on theory and fundamentals. While making the decision to switch from Mechanical Engineering to Math and CS, I found that one of the largest deciding factors would be the type of work involved with the major. In engineering, you often find yourself stuck working through the same routine calculations.

In mathematics, for most courses, each problem unveils a new way to interpret the topic, and it’s very refreshing.

In term of assignments, what I like the about them is that they aren’t very long in general. They require that you figure out the solution in a clever way, which is where you should find yourself committing the majority of your time. The benefit of studying a joint major in Math and CS is that the math compliments the CS in a critical way. You may be asked to, for example in Comp 302 or Comp 330, to provide a proof to justify your solution. But you have already been drilled in your analysis and algebra courses on how to write rigorous proofs, so you can put the technicalities behind and focus on the key ideas for the course. CS is great in that it is fun and you can quickly turn some crazy idea into reality. Of course, CS is also very employable in today’s market.

Cons:

As far as the disadvantages go, the math facilities aren’t quite as nice as some of the other departments. Although, a nice study space did just open up in Burnside on the 11th floor. Being in a double major also grants you access to a majority of buildings on lower campus, so it’s not so bad.

One thing that other people would also tell you is that programming assignments in CS can take a long time to complete. This is definitely true.

I’ve found myself debugging code for hours in the Trottier computer lab, and doubting whether this assignment is really worth my time because I have a midterm coming up in a couple of days. You always need to believe in yourself and push through.

Another thing that might happen with taking 5 courses a term is that you might have either 5 assignments due 5 days in a row, or 4 midterms and 3 assignments in the same week, or some other similar combinations of midterms and assignments. In this case, you need to very carefully manage your time, and I always *try* to finish the assignments first.

What’s one thing you’re proud about during your McGill Career?

For me, it would be making the switch from Mechanical Engineering to my current program. There were a lot of risks involved with the decision, I was doing well in Mech. Eng. but, I didn’t really feel a sense of belonging academically. Although I enjoy the material more with Math and CS, there was always the risk that I wouldn’t be able to do as well. Additionally, I had to restructure a lot of my courses making the transition, which ended up with me losing a few courses worth of credit despite the time and effort I put towards doing well in them. Then there was the issue that I had a lot of pride being in an engineering degree, which is prestigious to many people, especially a degree from McGill. But I realized that none of this matters.

If you want to pursue a dream, you certainly should not stay on a track that doesn’t take you there.

What advice would you give to younglings at McGill? Or… If you were to go back to your first year, what would you have done differently

If you buried your head in a textbook in high school like me, you might bring that habit with you into university, and I know now that this is not very healthy for your mind. It’s important to go out and explore the city, or play guitar, go skating, and do the things that you enjoy. Another opinion that I’ve developed is that contrary to popular belief, grades do matter. While of course, it is important to actually learn and understand the material, which is often necessary to get a good grade, it was in large part due to my grades that I was able to have so many interesting experiences over the last couple, and this coming summer.

Set a goal for yourself to pursue after university, then it’s a lot easier to stay motivated.

Internship Experience

Tell us about your summer internship and how you acquired it.

This past summer (Summer 2018), I participated in the DAAD RISE research program. I was fortunate enough to spend my summer in Germany at a computer science lab that specialized in computer vision. Specifically, I worked in the subdivision of the lab that dealt with transportation systems, and in particular self-driving cars. My work involved predicting future environments that a car might find itself in based on the current environment, in order to, for example, avoid possible accidents. The lab was stationed in Berlin, which made the experience really enjoyable.

In a way, it was like a vacation and work at the same time.

I feel as though people in Europe have a great work-life balance which was really cool to see.

To get an internship with DAAD, you had to send in a transcript, motivation letter and a letter of reference. From there, you also get to apply to up to 3 projects, which are all up on the DAAD RISE program webpage. Once you identify a few projects that you’re very interested in, take your time to write out a solid motivation letter. I later learned from my supervisor, this was one of his top deciding factors.

Tell us 3 things you learned from this internship.

  1. I learned that I enjoy research.
  2. To get the most out of your research experience, you need to have the necessary background. While I had the relevant prerequisite knowledge, there was still some heavy math which I could not make sense of at the time. This meant I ended up working behind quite a few “black boxes” in the form of APIs. However, this does not mean that you cannot produce meaningful results. By understanding how the “black boxes” work, you can combine them in meaningful ways and experiment with the outcomes, which I think characterizes much of undergraduate research, so this is normal, and don’t be ashamed if you don’t understand everything! My project was successful and I produced results that could be used by my supervisor in his own research.
  3. Mate (the fizzy German drink) is very tasty, would recommend. You can get them for 58 euro cents at any respectable grocery store. ($0.87 CAD)

How did this internship steer the course of your career?

I think that an internship is the best learning experience out there, you get to involve yourself in real work which will shape your opinion of future career paths. Exploring your options over the course of short internships will help you decide what you want to do in the long term.

After this internship, I can say that switching majors was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and I haven’t looked back since.

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