My Journey to ACL, an incredible experience

ACL is the premier conference of the field of computational linguistics, covering a broad spectrum of diverse research areas that are concerned with computational approaches to natural language. This year ACL 2020 comprised of more than 4000 NLP researchers and enthusiasts from all over the world, making it as vibrant as possible.

This is my second ACL, the first one will always have a special place on the heart. I personally was not fond of the virtual conference until I was thrilled by the very first day with the first workshop “WINLP” at ACL. Again, words are not enough to thank WINLP for making my participation at ACL possible for both of these years financially and morally.

How did I make it to ACL? (Top Tier Conference)

My Master’s research was based on Natural Language Processing applications on radiology text and to graduate from this program called “Masters in Data Science for Health Care” program, I needed to have my research published in a peer-reviewed international venue. My batch is the first batch of this program and we had no seniors to guide us through. Being an international student, surviving on scholarships and stipends, I had the pressure of the clock ticking if not accomplished on time. And the exhausting thing about research publications is that you cannot send to multiple venues at the same time. Keeping this in mind, when the first part of my research was ready, with the advice of my supervisor we sent it to IEEE. Here, we proposed ways for clinical information extraction using Natural Language Processing techniques as a result of my research. While we waited for the results, the second part of my research was also ready and I started to look for another venue thinking if I get into any one of these, I will be good. And I found I still had time to submit with WINLP colocated with ACL. I asked my research supervisor if I could use the second part of my research to submit at ACL but at that time I was not aware ACL is a top venue and is every NLP researcher #goals. My supervisor did not give me a positive response to this idea of saving time.

I then thought the worst thing that could happen was not getting it published. However, if I am not applying it is one hundred percent sure I will not get it. And if I submit, who knows it gets accepted and then only I would inform my supervisor.

I then wrote the complete paper for ACL on my own without any supervision as I already had an idea writing my earlier paper. I did ask some of my friends to proofread it for me and tried to revise it as many times as possible. A few days later, I got an email notifying the paper I had submitted at IEEE got accepted for the oral presentation. Here is the link to my paper.

“ It was a beautiful experience to have my first paper as the first author at IEEE for an oral presentation”.

“Life was just as good and then it became best when I got an email stating my paper has been accepted at ACL 2019, and to present it I had to travel to Florence, Italy.”

My happiness knew no bounds and it was a dream come true. When I pressed the news to my research supervisor, that was when he explained to me that ACL is a top tier conference, and getting there is really a big deal. My happiness was multiplied by how many folds I don’t remember that I was in the ninth cloud. However, the new hurdle was traveling to and back from Thailand to Italy was not cheap and I was an international student in Thailand from Nepal living on scholarships. I enquired about scholarships through my university itself but did not get any luck. And WINLP was assuring me that they are trying their best to secure funds for my travel and accommodation.

And one fine morning I woke up to an email from WiNLP that they are able to secure the funds required for my travel and accommodation and I will be able to present my research in person at ACL.

WINLP also wrote a Facebook post introducing me and my research. It was my first ever trip to Europe and I was traveling all alone with my mind filled with excitement and thriller and a bag packed with dreams and hopes. I did not have an internet connection on my phone and hence the google maps were not working. But my excitement level was at the level that I was not shy to ask for directions and very confident to ask for any help I needed being completely alone and not knowing anyone in a new country.

I landed in Rome and my train to Florence was in the evening and I had a few hours that I could spend time roaming in Rome, what an experience! I did not miss the chance to have a look at the ancient Roman culture at Colosseum, Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, Vatican city from a bridge, and other places that I don’t know the name. During this, I met a number of people chatting with them and invited all of them to visit Nepal and Thailand. And I found people to be very warm and welcoming. I am still friends with some of them as I checked on them if they were ok during this pandemic. I then caught my train to Florence and the first shocking experience for me was it was so bright and warm at 9 30 pm in the night as it would be at 5 pm in the evening. People found on the way were very happy to help me to show the way to the hotel I had booked.

The next day early morning I was all ready to actually pursue my dream. My presentation was scheduled on this very first day and it was a poster presentation and I carried all my dreams and hopes in that poster to the conference venue. Here is the link to the paper published at ACL.

Entering the venue my excitement knew no bounds and during the poster session, I would call everyone- someone who would not even look interested in my talk and start explaining my research. The best part was that I did not know anyone of them so I would not distinguish between the juries and panelists and the students like me, I was confidently explaining my research story to everyone passing by. And during the event completion announcement, I discovered they were juries that I did talk to and then got nervous sitting in my chair. But deep down I was thankful that if I recognized them earlier I wouldn’t be confident enough. By the end of the day, so many people in the venue already knew me by my first name, and I was feeling as if they were my old friends.

There were at least five events happening parallelly in each session for five days. So, I was in a situation that too much of knowledge on the floor and I am not sure where to pick from.

I tried to choose events that I was able to understand by looking at the terms used in the title of the events back to back. There were separate private closed sessions going on with each of the FAANG companies as well. Due to my friendly nature, I got an entry pass from a newly made friend to the MICROSOFT closed event. I could meet the top researchers of Microsoft from there. One of the memorable conversations I had was with the Senior Principal Research Scientist at Microsoft “Timothy J Hazen”. I then discovered that Microsoft is also doing the kind of research as mine with the electronic health record documents like me.

Some other memorable experience that I bring back as I had my research that I could use to talk to almost everybody in the conference. I later got to know that I was the only researcher from Nepal to be presented at ACL 2019 or 2018 and the number of people in the conference was more than 3000. And I would go on sightseeing with my newly made friends in the evening as it was all bright and warm till 10 pm in the evening.

This year attending ACL 2020 virtually was a different experience from last year. This year I could make notes of everything I was learning in a word document and downloading the papers that were recommended and interesting for me in a separate folder. The most engaging was the mentoring sessions. I was lucky enough to get personal advice from the top researchers like “Amanda Stent from Bloomberg”, “ Vinodkumar Prabhakaran from Google”, and “Ellie Lan from Bloomberg”. Some other engaging experience for me was four workshops “WINLP 2020 Workshops”, “Workshop on BioMedical Natural Language Processing”, “NLP for Medical Conversation”, “NLP for Conversational AI”. I will write about what I learned from these workshops in a separate blog in the near future.

My advice to early career researchers like me

“Beleive in yourself and keep working on your dreams”

Dreamer, Researcher, Story Teller