Computer science reimagined

Meet Kehan Xu, a master’s student studying Computer Science at ETH Zurich. We at Cybernews Academy sat down with this aspiring Computer Graphics expert to discuss her experience at ETH Zurich, the difference between studying in her home country of China, and how she discovered her specialization.

Fixed and found

Originally from China, Kehan finished her bachelor’s studies in Computer Science at Peking University. The system in China is unquestionably unique, as Kehan didn’t choose her university; the university chose her. “Back in China, we don’t choose our universities. All students take a universal exam, are awarded grades, and then admitted to universities depending on our grades.” Students don’t necessarily have the freedom to choose. Instead, they are paired with a university that matches their particular level of excellence. This is similar when selecting majors, as the higher your score, the more likely you are to choose a popular major. Initially, Kehan wanted to pursue mathematics at degree level. However, she concluded that she found pure mathematics too theoretical. Discovering computer science was a happy accident, as she explained that “it feels like a fortunate process for me, accidentally finding something I love.” She pursued her bachelor’s degree, and upon graduating, she took a year out to reflect and cement her decision as to where she was headed next.

Destination Europe

This student knew she wanted to study abroad after completing her bachelor’s studies. She decided on a computer science master’s program and was choosing between European or North American universities. She decided against the U.S. due to some of the intricate details that made this move harder for this young student. “If I went to the U.S., I would have to take a very short master’s program and find an internship and a job. You have to establish yourself there.” She found that Europe allowed her to explore her surroundings while concentrating on her computer science studies. “I feel this program in Europe allows me the freedom to switch my focus of study and enjoy my environment.” Overall, Kehan expressed that she “really enjoys her life here” as she doesn’t have to rush into the standard process of getting a job and completing a short master’s program. ETH Zurich has afforded her total freedom to take control of her degree and explore the beauty of her campus environment.

Studying in China

Kehan described the differences between her bachelor’s studies in China and her master’s studies in Switzerland. “For my bachelor’s, it’s more of a general program. You don’t get to choose your direction of focus. We all take the same course for four years. Everyone takes the same course in computer programming and mathematics in the first two years. Then, in your third year, people can choose the lab they want to go into.” Kehan explained that her bachelor’s studies in China encouraged research early in a student's academic journey. “The research focus essentially depends on which professor you’re working with. There’s also a project for bachelor’s students who work with professors; they can do projects, earn credits, and if they did an outstanding job, they may receive a reward.” This incentivizes research, Kehan explained.

Studying in Switzerland

In contrast, Kehan’s master’s program at ETH Zurich is focused and direct. “My degree is very specialized. Once you’re studying, you get a true direction for your major and minor studies.” She explained that the entire computer science program is split into six or seven different majors, with courses aligned to each category– from there, you are able to choose between two main categories. If you have special interests in other areas of computer science or technology, you can take core credits attributed to these courses. “I do computer graphics within this major called visual computing, which provides a wide range of courses in computer graphics and computer vision.” This computer graphics course gives Kehan the skills and flexibility she needs to pursue her passions. Throughout our interview, she told us the course is helpful and well-taught. She expressed that the teaching assistants, lecturers, and professors at ETH Zurich are extremely helpful. “I get help from the TAs, and I always feel like no matter how large or small the classroom is, the education is always excellent. The lecturers come well-prepared, and I have always felt supported at ETH Zurich.”

Compelling computer graphics

Kehan’s primary focus within her computer science master’s degree is computer graphics, used in computer animation commonly witnessed in Pixar and Disney. “Computer graphics is the technology behind animated movie scenes. It provides a lot of technical and artistic challenges. It’s incredibly fascinating.” She explained that computer graphics is used in animation to mimic reality. “When working, computer graphics must simulate the physical environment.” Through this specialization, Kehan is studying the physics of the natural world and attempting to emulate that digitally. She explains that mathematics is needed due to the complexity of real-world movement and a solid understanding of computer science and software engineering to actualize the final product. Kehan mentions that her degree is very interdisciplinary, as many different factors make this specialization unique. Throughout the interview, Kehan spoke in depth about her specialization and expressed that she enjoys the beauty of the final product. “I love this specialization as there is an eventual reward once you implement a program and observe beautiful frames on screen. In that moment, you realize that all that work was worth it.”

In the future, Kehan has multiple options to explore. She wants to pursue computer graphics with a specific focus on physical-based rendering. “There are two directions I could take: either pursue a PhD or move into the industry.” One of Kehan’s aspirations for the future is to one day see her name in the credits of a movie. This aspiration has helped continually light the fire that has allowed Kehan to reach academic success, not once, but twice. Our final question for this future computer graphics expert was, “Do you have any advice for our readers.” This student responded: “Stay motivated, master self-motivation, and try to figure out what direction you are going in. Your academic journey isn’t about crafting a super-shining resume. Instead, it should be about discovering what you love and working hard for the love of learning that specialization.”