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Dr. Doina Precup and her research group: creating systems that learn through experience

Prof. Doina Precup with research group and colleagues.

Marc Gendron-Bellemare took an undergraduate introductory course in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and "loved it from the first moment!". After a few summers working in the computer science department and investigating different labs, he started graduate work with Dr. Doina Precup.

For one of his first projects Marc created a virtual backgammon player. "It has the ability to learn as it practises against itself - it's quite amazing. You code it and just let it go!" says Marc. He is enthralled by the idea of creating a player and watching it learn and improve. That is the premise of Dr. Precup's research: creating systems that learn through experience.

Phil Keller, another graduate student, makes trades, negotiates prices, and configures the best loading and unloading schedules for shipments 'virtually' - without ever leaving his office. He took part in a Trading Agent Competition challenge where students create a virtual commodity trader that 'performs', 'learns', and 'competes' with other virtual traders from other schools. Precup's lab won the first Supply Trading Agent Competition in 2003 as their 'agent' made the most (virtual) money.

Rossiana Bojinova met Dr. Precup at an event organized by the Computer Science Undergraduate Society. Surrounded by beer, pizza, and professors tends to be a most enjoyable environment for many wanting to talk science. Rossiana is weighing her options in this last semester of her undergraduate degree; she's excited about the possibility of perhaps staying on to work in Dr. Precup's lab as a graduate student... "I'm testing the ground to see if it suits me!"

Dr. Precup encourages students to work on different projects; collaborations with different students and laboratories throughout McGill are common. Students in her COMP 250 - Intro to Computer Science and COMP 424 - Artificial Intelligence classes tend to enjoy her courses and approach her after class. This is the most common way for undergraduates to get a position her lab. Such students don't even need to have advanced computer knowledge explains Dr. Precup: "I even had a few CÉGEP students one summer; all you really need is some fundamental math courses. The coding can be acquired easily and even the newest students can contribute to a project."

So you don't have to know how to program in C++ or Java to speak to Dr. Precup. She's as eager to meet you as you are to meet her. More that anything, she values the enthusiasm in her students...

Author: Aydin Tavakoli, a WARM-SPARK writer.

WARM-SPARK (Writing About Research at McGill-Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge) is a program supported by the VP Research Office, Associate Vice Principal (Communications), the faculties of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Arts, Engineering, Medicine, and Science. See www.spark.mcgill.ca for more information and articles.

Photographer: Owen Egan 2006