Graduate School

Alum Profile: David Abel '20 PhD

David completed his PhD in Computer Science in April 2020 amidst a global pandemic. Through a series of internships and conversations he sought out his current employer, DeepMind, a research lab in London focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence. David earned his undergraduate degree in Computer Science and Philosophy from Carleton College.

David AbelWhile at Brown, he participated in the Open Graduate Education program where he earned a master’s in Philosophy. He credits Brown for having a research culture that emphasizes collaboration, friendliness, and open mindedness.

On starting at DeepMind
In 2020, I started my job as a Research Scientist at DeepMind based in London, UK, where I will continue to do research on machine learning and artificial intelligence. To that end, my job will center around research on these topics (which were also the focus of my PhD), though I don't yet know the precise questions I will pursue. I have been using some of my time after graduation to read broadly and brainstorm possible next directions, which has been fun! I am most excited to meet new researchers in my field, hear about their research philosophy and their recent work, in addition to starting up my own new research directions now that my dissertation is finished.

On his trajectory to DeepMind
When I started at Brown, I was not sure precisely what I wanted to do with my career, so I tried to be open minded about different trajectories. I did several internships during the summers (two at companies and one at a university) and I found these to be extremely informative in thinking about life beyond Brown. My final internship was with DeepMind the summer before my final year. I had such a fulfilling experience during the internship that as I approached the job market I knew I would be interested in returning. I also had regular conversations with my partner, my friends, and mentors about the differences across academia, industry, and beyond, and naturally these conversations were very helpful for thinking through the different options.

On his experience at Brown and in the Open Graduate Education Program
It was a genuine delight to be a part of the community at Brown and in the Open Grad program. At Brown, I found an academic home filled with peers and mentors that were constantly inspiring and supportive. I firmly believe in the power of research to enlighten and transform, but one thing I loved most about Brown was that its research culture emphasizes collaboration, friendliness, and open mindedness. My advisor, Professor of Computer Science, Michael Littman, was always willing to let me explore a topic or idea, and gave me the tools (or careful line of questioning) I needed to make my investigations meaningful. In general at Brown I found friends, colleagues, and mentors that were kind enough to leave me with unreasonably high expectations of what to look for in a community. So, when I began looking for jobs, I knew that one of my top priorities for my position was the presence of great colleagues and a positive and welcoming community. In a similar vein, the Open Grad program gave me a deeper appreciation for different perspectives, and caused me to think at length about how my research sits in the broader scope of society and human knowledge. By communicating regularly with folks from beyond my own department, it helped sharpen my sense of why I did what I did, and gave me the opportunity to think about how to clearly convey that motivation to a broader audience. Similarly, the Open Grad program helped me realize the extent to which research typically takes place in certain ideological ecosystems---there are assumptions, language, and objectives that are usually shared across individuals in the same community that are not always transparent or justified to other communities. The ability to have regular discussions with deep thinkers from different fields was wonderful in this regard; I was able to directly see the borders and assumptions of my own ecosystem, and the value one might obtain from going beyond them (or reappreciate the reason certain assumptions were taken on board to begin with).

On how his research and professional interests have evolved
In many ways my broader objectives are still roughly the same: I want to use the tools of science and math to bring clarity to big philosophical questions. When I began at Brown, however, I did not have a clue how to work toward this goal. I knew I was fascinated by certain topics and that I loved reading and discussing ideas with people. However, I did not have a sense of what it looked like to establish a research agenda that acted on my interests. My time at Brown, through the Open Grad, experiences with my collaborators, and time spent with my mentors, have collectively given me the tools I need to be concrete in making substantive short-term progress toward a long term research program. At DeepMind, I hope to continue working on this research program, and to continue to sharpen my skills as a researcher. In this sense, my interests and goals at the start of my time at Brown were roughly what they are now, but I lacked the necessary scaffolding to translate my ideas into research.

Advice for current graduate students
The main practical advice I can offer is to regularly talk with folks in the communities you would like to be a part of. It takes time to learn the language and objectives of different research communities, and nothing really beats having in depth conversations with experts. For instance, I set up meetings with a few folks in the philosophy department and attended a few philosophy conferences. Not all of these meetings or conferences were instantly fruitful (many were, though!), but they helped me become acquainted with the style of work that philosophers do, and how it differs from what I was more familiar with (computer science). It can be especially effective if you find a collaborator from a different field who you work well with, and is willing to act as an arbiter to help bring you into the new area.

On his positive experiences, training, and mentorship at Brown
My mentors were massive sources of inspiration. Nearly all aspects of my research pipeline are influenced directly from examples they provided or draw from lessons they taught me. Beyond having the good fortune of working with great mentors, I participated in a few specific activities that I found were very helpful in the late stages of my PhD and I'm sure will help me out in my new position, too. For instance, I participated in Research Matters, a Brown run talk series in which grad students receive training on how to present a talk to a broad audience. I am an active believer in the critical role that effective communication plays in research, and Research Matters did wonders to train me to give an impactful presentation. As another example, I attended a doctoral consortium that co-occurred with a conference. The consortium provided a platform to meet other late-stage PhD students and receive training for all-things-post-PhD. I met a few great collaborators there and picked up many important lessons on how to navigate conferences, the job market, thesis writing, and beyond.

What he misses about Brown
I dearly miss the wonderful people that make up the Brown community. I was very fortunate to make several lifelong friends and learn from extraordinary mentors, and I will really cherish the time I shared with them (but of course, I look forward to staying in touch!).