StFX computer science students gaining skills, confidence and looking at the future in a new way through Alley Heaps Undergraduate Research Internship 

L-r, 2022 Alley Heaps Undergraduate Research Internship recipients at StFX, Alastair May, Jay Turnsek and Patrick Bowen. Missing is Yuchen Wei 

The ability to do research this summer as a recipient of the Alley Heaps Undergraduate Research Internship, awarded to StFX computer science students, has had a terrific impact, says this year’s recipients.   

Students Alastair May, Jay Turnsek, Yuchen Wei and Patrick Bowen each received $7,500 for 16 weeks of research work under the supervision of a StFX faculty member. The summer internships are part of the Dr. H. Stanley & Doreen Alley Heaps Chair, which provides for the support, exploration, and advancement of computing science at StFX. 


Patrick Bowen of Antigonish, NS, who is in year two of the Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in Artificial Intelligence, conducted research this summer focused on stance detection in Twitter posts (a.k.a."tweets"). 

“I wanted to be able to answer questions like ‘How do people on Twitter feel towards a given celebrity/product?’ I experimented with finetuning a pretrained language model by exposing it to a mix of handpicked tweets in favour of, and against, a certain entity. I then evaluated how well that model was able to determine the stance of these tweets towards that entity. This indicated that finetuning a language model in this fashion could be a less expensive alternative for determining public sentiment than training an entire model from scratch.”

Mr. Bowen, who is supervised by Dr. Milton King, says it was a great privilege to be able to immerse himself in a focused research environment before graduation. “Being able to investigate my own interests, working directly with faculty from my classes and being prepared for future research make it such a rewarding experience.

“I got the opportunity to work on a larger project for a longer duration time than what a student is typically able to during regular coursework. It gave me great experience in structuring, adding onto, and refactoring a large codebase. This is an invaluable skill for both academia and industry. It also provided the chance to explore the current research environment in natural language processing, and for machine learning at large.”  


“This opportunity means a lot to me. It gives me my first exposure to research in the true sense of the word and makes me think about my future and career plans in a new way,” says Yuchen Wei of Xuzhou, Jiangsu, China who is in the final year of an honours degree in computer science with a minor in math. 

“Our research this summer is about word sense disambiguation (WSD). WSD is a task to figure out the meaning of a word depending on its context. Our work finds that there is an influence of temporal features of the text posting time on word meanings. Finally, we take advantage of this difference to boost the performance of the WSD model.

“In this research, Professor Milton (King) taught me a lot, including how to find the needed papers, how to build and improve WSD models, and how to do better academic writing. More importantly, he taught me what I need to do and what I don't need to do, what I need to analyze and what I don't need to analyze in research. Thank you, Professor Milton, and StFX for all your guidance and help!”


Alastair May, a senior student from Antigonish, NS, worked on a project, supervised by Dr. Taylor Smith, focused on finite automata. “More specifically looking into being able to automate the creation of visual representations of them in a way that is as neat as possible,” he says.

Mr. May says the opportunity means he will find it easier to find a job in the future, and it also gives him a confidence boost. “The main benefit in my mind is the added job experience that will help me in the job market in future. The second benefit is the bonus money to pay for school. However, as part of the experience I gained more confidence in navigating and troubleshooting in Linux and Bash and refined my problem solving abilities.”


Jay Turnsek, a fourth year computer science student from North Bay, ON, supervised by Dr. James Hughes and Dr. Jantina Toxopeus, used neural networks to identify and classify CAS protein clusters in DNA sequences.

“It has given me the opportunity to self-manage a large scale project, and gain technical skills needed in the field,” he says. “I learned valuable skills such as project management, scientific writing, and programming machine learning processes.”