Mejova had shared her "Thoughts of Recent Graduate" soon after getting her PhD
Monday, October 9, 2023
Yelena Mejova portrait - submitted

Yelena Mejova (PhD '12) recently agreed to a follow-up Q&A to her 2015 Alumni Profile piece here. Now a Senior Research Scientist at the ISI Foundation in Turin, Italy, she shares insightful updates, advice, and more!

When we last contacted you in 2015, you were working as a Scientist at the Qatar Computing Research Institute. Where has your career and research taken you since then?

Since graduating from UIowa, I spent a year and a half at Yahoo! Research in Barcelona, Spain, after which I was a researcher at the Qatar Computing Research Institute for five years. They were wonderful, productive years when I established myself as a computational social science researcher. Currently, I am a Senior Research Scientist at the ISI Foundation in Turin, Italy -- a non-profit research institute focusing on complex systems and their applications. I am also excited to serve as a co-Editor-in-Chief of EPJ Data Science, allowing me to better understand the "other side" of academic publishing. My work remains around social media and the application of computational tools to problems in public health, political science, and demography, and the latest developments on all of these fronts continue to make it a fascinating field.

Were there any experiences you had at Iowa that you feel were particularly useful for your career?

The freedom and encouragement I have experienced as a PhD student at UIowa have allowed me to learn the critical thinking skills and creative exploration necessary for setting an agenda for fruitful research. I am thankful that a topic was not thrust upon me, but I was guided to find my own path. Further, the deep dives into literature during the reading groups have taught me to read between the lines, and assess the contribution and writing style of papers, and become a better writer myself.

What is your perspective on achieving early but continued success in a computer science career?

If one is interested in a career in academia, I would encourage all graduating students to do a postdoctoral visit or an extended internship at an institution that will allow you to learn new skills and make connections well beyond the network of your university and advisor. These connections will likely emerge from outside of your working group, so try to collaborate with as many interesting researchers as you can, and make a good impression. Thus, I would attribute my career successes largely to luck, but also to taking a few chances and trying to prove myself early.

What advice do you have for students currently studying computer science?

Although the field of Computer Science is evolving fast, make sure to study the basics, which will provide a solid groundwork for future study (and you will continue to study all your life in this field). The knowledge of C and its derivatives, the basic algorithms, complexity analysis, and data structures will all be necessary. If possible, join clubs or teams to explore technologies together -- you will remember much more, and enjoy yourself.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you knew in the early stages of your professional career?

I wish I took even more chances and shot even higher. Apply to everything, even if you think it's beyond your reach -- you never know.

Are there any projects that you’re currently working on?

During the first few years of COVID, the world turned its attention to public health interventions that only few were interested in before. It was a unique time to examine opinion formation around a controversial topic: vaccination. Over several papers examining Twitter data, we have found that, people didn't seem to change their mind about the benefits (and dangers) of vaccination as pandemic wore on (1), that vaccine hesitancy content tends to spread internationally (2), and that in many countries, it is linked to interest in particular political parties (3). I am excited to continue examining the relationship between society, public health, and technologies that permeate our lives.

Yelena Mejova portrait with ACM GoodIT Best Paper Award - Source: X

Relatedly, in Sept. '23, Mejova et al. received a Best Paper Award at ACM GoodIT for "Leave no Place Behind: Improved Geolocation in Humanitarian Documents" related to her work with the DEEP project.

For additional alumni/ae recollections of their time at Iowa, click here!

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