CSAIL PhD has sharp vision for visualizations and video games

Fifth year CSAIL student Leilani Battle studies how to make databases faster and easier for data scientists, and also sews costumes from pictures.
Fifth year CSAIL student Leilani Battle studies how to make databases faster and easier for data scientists, and also sews costumes from pictures.

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For as long as Leilani Battle can remember, she has always loved video games. Raised mostly outside of Seattle, (her father was in the navy), Battle followed her affinity for games through her study of computer science at the University of Washington before applying to MIT. Her passion morphed into a focus on visual analytics, databases, and user interface design. Battle is currently a fifth year PhD student at CSAIL in the database research group.

What was your academic path before coming to grad school at MIT?
For the first two years of undergrad, I struggled with interviews. I couldn’t quite do them well enough to work at company like Google, so I started with undergraduate research programs. The first one was in a robotics group, and the second one was databases, which is what I am still studying now. It was a mixture of collecting data generated by people, and trying to use that information in conjunction with databases to produce a useful product that people could use. It was people and user-interface focused.

Continuing my studies in this field felt like a natural extension. My research advisor had received her PhD from MIT and had many wonderful things to say about this program, so I applied and came here.

When did you get the computer science bug?
I knew I wanted to be in the computer science/electrical engineering realm since high school. As a kid, I grew up playing a lot of video games. Originally, I wanted to develop my own games and generate the art content, but I knew it was a tough market to break into. I thought about the technical side of gaming as well, which was equally challenging, but I knew that it wasn’t something just anyone could do -- so I pursued that route.

Later on, I was accepted to the UW direct admission computer science program. I knew had nothing to lose if I didn’t like the program, I could easily switch out. But I really enjoyed the classes, the people, the program -- so I stayed.

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?
All of my research is to provide tools that make interacting with databases faster and easier for data scientists. In the database world, everyone focuses on performance and optimizations, but from a systems perspective. They don’t consider how a user’s interaction with the system can change those dynamics and influence from beginning to end how fast that analysis process is.

Examining how people behave when they interact with your system is key -- you can then use that data to produce huge performance improvements that have nothing to do with low level optimizations, and have a lot more to do with how people behave.    

What effect do you think your area of work will have on the world in the next decade?
My work right now is visualization-- the tool, and the medium that scientists use to interpret the data they collect from the world. They basically can’t do their work without visualizations. Any additional tools we can provide to scientists that allow them to produce visualizations, and use other useful data analytics interfaces for large scale data sets is absolutely critical. With all of the different sensors in the world and data they can collect, scientists can run into issues where they can’t process the data fast enough, and their visualization tools are not measuring up. Anything we can provide for them will make a huge impact.

What is your favorite thing about doing research at CSAIL?
The ability to share your ideas and feel like you’re being heard by everyone around you. Everyone here is so intelligent, but also friendly and kind, and will listen to your ideas and help you make them better and stronger. I used to be afraid of vocalizing my ideas, but coming here I’ve become more used to sharing my thoughts and figuring out what does and doesn’t work. When you share your ideas, they can turn into an amazing project, and if you don’t, it may never come to fruition.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Much harder than doing the actual research is being able to effectively present your results, particularly with peers in your field. A lot of engineers and tech people can undervalue presentation going through college, and then realize later that they need those skills. In graduate school, you have to give presentations on papers, and it’s critical to effectively present your ideas well. If people don’t understand what you’re doing, they won’t understand the value.

What advice would you give to a prospective CSAIL graduate student?
No matter where you choose to pursue your masters or PhD, your top priority should be taking care of yourself. Whether that’s choosing classes that interest you the most, or making sure you get enough sleep, it’s extremely important to make sure that you are physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. Graduate school is already hard, so any other other physical or environmental factors that make it harder only takes away from your studies. It’s not a waste of time to take care of yourself. Also, take a meditation class; it’s life-changing.

Tell us about a recent “Only at MIT” moment.
It’s not exactly a moment, but I’d say it’s the variety of classes and the intensity to which students commit to them. I’m taking these game design courses, and the experience feels different because people are taking their lives and putting them into these games and drawing on their experiences. It’s the sort of thing that I feel like I could only have here.

Everyone is hard-working and passionate; it’s amazing what comes out of these classes. You can be passionate about whatever you want, and there will be other people who appreciate and resonate with that, and will do it with you.  You don’t come here just to do math.

Favorite place to gets news about computer science?
Friends and colleagues! There is such a vast amount of content; I think a news aggregator could be useful, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about.
What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I love to sew and I love fashion. Something I find exciting is choosing a fictional character and making that costume for Halloween. It’s an interesting technical challenge. When you choose a character, whether they are animated or live action in a movie, the way the fabric flows and how it's portrayed may not translate to the resources you have. You want to recreate that same visual effect - with different materials.

The first costume I made was Elsa from “Frozen.” She’s an animated character, so you literally can’t buy her dress -- you have to use real world materials to try and simulate the effects of her cape or gown. (I gave up on the shoes-- I think they’re made of ice.)

If you could tell your younger self one thing what would it be? What would you tell your future self?
To my younger self, I’d say, “it seems like a total disaster right now, but it’s going to be okay.”
To my future self, I’d say...the same thing.

It’s important to keep in perspective that things don’t go your way sometimes, but sometimes that can be a blessing. Meditation teaches you when you live in the moment, when things happen, they happen in the present, and you can choose whether or not to carry them with you to the future. Staying mindful. That’s something I want to do forever.

Final thoughts:
I’m one of the many representatives under the MIT graduate student council. I encourage people to learn about out what the council does, many things directly impact quality of life on campus: negotiating graduate student stipends, improvements to housing, and maintenance to name a few. If it wasn’t for them, there’s a lot of benefits we wouldn't have here.