Case Study

Amii Alum Profile: Justin Stevens builds community (and believes you can, too)

Amii alum Justin Stevens is a Machine Learning Educator with the Amii Training team. As founder of the Undergraduate AI Society at the University of Alberta and an active volunteer in several initiatives, he is a prominent figure in Edmonton's tech community. Justin earned his Master’s in Computing Science from the University of Alberta, focusing on applications of AI to games and explainable AI.

Planting Seeds

Justin Stevens came by his passion early in life.

Though Edmonton-born, Justin grew up in Reno, Nevada, attending a special high school that allowed him to dual enroll in post-secondary classes at the University of Nevada, Reno. It was there that he was introduced to Professor Richard Kelley’s Robotics Lab, run out of the Nevada Center for Applied Research; a lab that he would eventually join.

This work with Kelley was his first experience with serious programming, and fed his curiosity and passion. It planted a seed that would eventually grow, first into an academic path, then a career. And through this journey, he took actions that benefitted not just himself, but hundreds of others along the way.

Welcome to the Club

Some UAIS founding members at DevCon 2019

“Undergraduates are incredibly capable of doing super cool stuff.”

Justin Stevens

Following high school, Justin attended Harvey Mudd College in California, eventually transferring to the University of Alberta in 2018 to pursue mathematics and computing science.

“When I came to the U of A, there was a lot of excitement around AI in Edmonton at the time. And I just wanted to be involved in all of it,” shared Justin. “So as an undergrad, I took every single AI course that I could get my hands on.”

A surprise classroom visit from then-President of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe, altered his path. Klawe gave Justin some key advice: that if he wanted to explore an interest, he shouldn’t do it alone; he should start an undergraduate club.

The chance conversation motivated him to found the Undergraduate AI Society (UAIS), a place where students interested in AI could discuss, learn about, and begin to apply AI and machine learning through workshops, presentations and projects.

“For graduate students, there’s a lot of great resources and attention from profs. But for undergraduate students, there are barriers,” he explains. “Undergraduates are incredibly capable of doing super cool stuff. And so we tried to gather this inclusive, diverse group of individuals that were interested in trying to tackle this problem.”

Through the UAIS, Justin and others began to seek out Edmonton’s wider AI community. It was through these efforts that Justin tapped into Amii – attending Amii-hosted events, sticking around after these events to chat with Amii staff and other community members, and hosting Amii Fellows as speakers at Undergraduate AI Society events.

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

The third year of Justin’s undergraduate studies started well enough. The UAIS was continually growing. He was taking an interesting course on intelligent systems, taught by Vadim Bulitko (Professor of Computing Science at the University of Alberta). And he had a summer internship lined up with a company in the US.

But those plans were about to change, as COVID swept through the world, and travel restrictions were installed in its wake. It was 2020 and Justin’s internship was cancelled. Still, he pursued his classes with enthusiasm and caught Bulitko’s attention. Soon, Bulitko invited him to do a summer research project, and Justin accepted.

“We worked on a really cool project, doing cellular automata research, and finding new heuristic search algorithms,” he enthused. “I enjoyed it a lot. And so, going into my senior year, I applied for graduate school and got in, and [Bulitko] agreed to supervise me.”

With his undergraduate studies completed, Justin said goodbye to the society he founded – comprised of 50 people at its inception, it had grown to 200 by the time he left.

“Now, they have a Discord numbering 300 or 400, and they’re still growing. I chat with them regularly. They ask me for advice sometimes. I like what they’re doing, a lot.”

Without the UAIS, Justin turned his volunteering efforts elsewhere, becoming a Lead Volunteer at Technology Alberta, VP External of the CS Graduate Student's Association (CSGSA), as well as the VP of Communications for the Artificial Intelligence in Medical Systems Society (AIMSS).

Putting in the Work

"His efforts have made him one of the most present and recognizable recent grads in Canada."

Warren Johnston, Product Owner - Talent at Amii

Transitioning into graduate studies proved challenging. Research by its nature is isolating, with a limited number of people working on a given project. The pandemic exacerbated this sense of isolation, removing the opportunity for casual social activity. As a creature of community, Justin found it difficult to fully engage with purely online studies.

But things turned around halfway through the Winter 2022 semester, as classes switched back to in-person delivery. He got to meet his classmates in real life – to get lunch with them, swap ideas, and even take trips to the mountains together.

Amii Fellow Csaba Szepesvári skiing with Justin & other U of A graduate students

He also plugged back into Amii – this time, through the AI Career Accelerator Program, a program run by Amii’s Talent team, geared towards graduate-level technical AI talent.

Justin was one of the first program participants, and unsurprisingly became one of the most active participants, as well. He joined monthly coffee socials, networking events and professional development sessions. By spending time at Amii’s co-working space and joining the private Slack community, he also interfaced directly with Amii researchers, staff and fellow participants.

“Justin is a shining example of how putting in work through student leadership opportunities and program participation as a Master's student can really pay off, in terms of career prospects and the ability to enter the AI workforce right out of school,” says Warren Johnston, Amii’s Product Owner of Talent. “His efforts have made him one of the most present and recognizable recent grads in Canada.”

The summer after his first year of graduate studies, Justin continued his work with Bulitko, as well as with Levi Lelis (Amii Fellow & Canada CIFAR AI Chair; Assistant Professor of Computing Science at the University of Alberta), extending on work he had done the previous summer and resulting in his first conference publication.

He continued collaborating with both researchers into his thesis, diving into an aspect of Lelis’ larger research study around puzzle video game The Witness, and exploring the potential of explainable AI to enhance humans’ ability to learn. He successfully defended his thesis in August 2023.

During his graduate studies, Justin also took advantage of Amii’s Work-Integrated Learning Opportunities (WILOs): paid, part-time, talent placements that are meant to round out technical AI talents’ skill sets through applied professional work. These placements hold a triple benefit: WILO participants get to rapidly upskill based on real-life experience, Amii product teams get to work with and nurture rising-star talent, and Amii clients and stakeholders get to access world-leading technical experts.

In total, Justin carried out four WILOs throughout his graduate studies, including teaching Amii’s ML Foundations classes. Delivering ML Foundations allowed Justin insight into the business perspective of AI, both through teaching the simplified, tactical-level content, as well as answering participant questions.

“When you’re working in a research lab, you’re working on a specific area or problem. You get a lot of domain-specific knowledge, which is good, but doesn’t help you understand how people from industry would actually see AI,” says Justin. “At ML Foundations, they would ask – “I’m from x industry and I’m facing y problem, do you have any advice for me?’ And that was both fascinating and helpful to hear.”

This experience was put to good use as he took the next step in his career. After earning his Master’s, he took on the role of Machine Learning Educator at Amii, developing and delivering content for audiences of varying technical abilities.

Full-Circle Moments

Amii Fellow Lili Mou & Justin discuss an AI concept at TechAid 2023

"If there’s not a community around it yet, you can build it. It takes a bit of work up front. But you can make it happen."

Justin Stevens

Joining the Amii team is just the latest in a number of full-circle moments, a theme in Justin’s life. Leaving and returning to Edmonton. Growing his career through Amii and now helping others do the same. Researching how AI can improve human learning, and now teaching humans about AI.

The full-circle effect even touches the Undergraduate AI Society – under its banner, he began attending Amii events. Now, that society which he founded is hosting monthly events in the Amii space.

The symmetry isn’t only beautiful, it also feels right somehow. Justin’s enthusiasm and knack for community-building has created a gateway for hundreds of students to explore AI, at a level of access previously unavailable for undergraduate students.

Amii’s Director of Curriculum André dos Santos says it best: “Justin has demonstrated an exceptional aptitude as a scientist and educator, all while radiating kindness and integrity in his work. It is exciting to see Justin's career develop and witness his immense potential to revolutionize the world of AI literacy. He is a remarkable talent, and I am eager to observe how he will continue to make a lasting impact.”

Considering Justin’s age, the legacy he has already built isn’t just impressive – it’s phenomenal. Yet his ego doesn’t seem to be fully aware of this. In conversation, Justin is humble; he asks questions and listens, really listens. He offers thoughtful and insightful feedback, generously engaging with any topic with natural, easy interest.

Maybe that’s his superpower, the real secret to his success: his ability to learn and enthusiastically build off of that learning, creating an optimistic energy that draws people in and feeds their own curiosity.

And of course, true to his personality — Justin thinks you can, too. When asked if he has any advice for those looking to follow in his footsteps, Justin says: “Get involved. We have a really cool tech community here in Edmonton. If you have a niche interest in something, there’s almost definitely a community around it."

"And if there’s not a community around it yet, you can build it. It takes a bit of work up front. But you can make it happen.”

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