The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Faculty Profile: Q&A with Laure Thompson

Assistant Professor Laure Thompson joined CICS in the fall of 2020, after completing her PhD in computer science at Cornell University, where she was advised by David Mimno (CICS ‘15PhD). Laure talked with us about her research focus and how it applies to industry.


What drew you to CICS?

A big part of what drew me to the College of Information and Computer Sciences were the connections with the Center for Data Science, the Computational Social Science Institute, and other groups that are doing interdisciplinary research. Another thing that appealed to me was UMass being part of the Five College Consortium, which brings in students who are interested in doing research that crosses disciplines, which really ties in with my research directions.


What is your research focus area?

I work broadly in natural language processing and machine learning towards the humanities and social sciences, particularly thinking about the methods and applications used for these areas. Large scales of digitized collections exist on cultural heritage, and my research focuses on the implications of how these use cases are testing the affordances of existing models, as well as how these new ways of using the methods provide insights about the methods themselves.


Do you see your research as having potential applications for industry? 

I definitely do. Because I think there are so many domain applications where people have text or images in large digital collections—anything from museums to hospitals—and they are trying to better organize it or analyze it. I always make the point that this is not about replacing the expert, which machine learning and data science sometimes are accused of doing, but instead about building a tool that's supposed to be helpful in the existing toolbox that the experts are already using. 


How did you first get interested in this area?

I did not start graduate school doing natural language processing and machine learning. I took an NLP class, to finish my degree requirements for courses, and I had also had a side interest in studying the ancient Mediterranean. At Cornell I was able to study classical archaeology, while also completing my PhD for computer science, which was my main focus. And this led me to David Mimno, who has a background in classics. From there I started asking questions like: What kind of datasets do people want to use? What kind of questions are humanists interested in? Where do things possibly fall apart for NLP models?


What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I like to read science fiction and play board games. I like to go skiing, but since I’ve only just moved to Massachusetts, I haven’t skied anywhere nearby. I live in Northampton, and it looks very beautiful, although I haven’t seen nearly its full charm due to the pandemic.