Profile: Samuel Chun Hei Lam
Samuel has just completed his first year of a DPhil in Mathematics through a joint Centre of Doctoral Training (CDT) programme with Imperial College London, where he previously completed his undergraduate degree. Having grown up in Hong Kong, he is delighted to be enjoying the unique university experience here in Oxford. He is currently the WCR External Affairs Officer, willing to represent the Univ postgraduate community in the Council of the Student Union and receive feedback about your Oxford experience and the new WCR website he is working on!
Why mathematics, and what are you currently researching for your DPhil?
I am fascinated by how mathematics provides a rigorous and elegant framework for exploring our world. Historically, simple tools like best-fit lines (or formally linear models) have allowed us to understand scientific relationships, from the Universe expansion to the number of microchips in your computer. Recent advances in deep learning enable us to explore even more complex relationships using deep neural networks. They are essential to the success of artificial intelligence, including ChatGPT and self-driving cars, but we know too little about them. Broadly, my research aims to improve our understanding of deep neural networks, allowing us to use these tools in a more principled way. I am grateful for the gracious financial support from EPSRC and Univ in carrying out my research during this period of economic uncertainty.
Our CDT starts with taught courses and mini-projects, where I learn about different tools to study neural networks as a system of interacting particles. Through these activities, I learnt the fundamental principle that a sufficiently large neural network really does behave like linear models. This principle opens pathways to prove theoretical results about the success of neural networks in many different applications.
How have you changed since walking through Univ’s doors for the first time?
Oxford is so different from London and Hong Kong, and as a result, I have changed a lot! The concept of college is new to me, and it has allowed me to work and enjoy life with many more people. I have taken up singing again (and a bit of organ playing), thanks to our chapel choir. Most importantly, I feel more prepared to become a mature researcher, thanks to the training and support from the University, as well as the valuable connections I have made so far.
What does a working day in your life look like?
A typical working day starts with breakfast at the College before the morning prayer at 8.40 am. Then I think about mathematics in my office, my room or at one of the university libraries. Sometimes I will attend seminars to learn more about news in my area of research or teach an intercollegiate class. In the evenings, I will be rehearsing the chapel choir or discussing my Christian faith with my local church / our college Christian Union (CU) if I am not debating university matters as your WCR External Affairs Officer on the Oxford Students Union Council.
We haven’t had an external affairs officer in our WCR for at least four years! What does an external affairs officer do?
To be frank, I am still learning about my role! My job is to attend the Council of the Students’ Union (SU) as your Common Room delegate to discuss motions and proposals to improve your Oxford experience. Our college is fortunate to have many representatives in the SU, including our outgoing SU President, Michael-Akolade Ayodeji (PPE ’18), and as part of the Council, we are keen to look at ways to engage even more with the postgraduate community as part of the SU 50th anniversary review.
You are also involved in developing our new WCR website. What will the new website look like?
The website will be a platform to answer your questions about our postgraduate college community, particularly those relating to your welfare, where to get help, and how to get involved in activities organised by our hard-working Social Officers and various societies. The website will document the efforts of our Common Room Committee to improve your college experience. Finally, I will make the website more easily maintainable after I have left my post.
Do you have any advice for settling into life in Oxford?
There is a lot going on here, especially during the Freshers’ Week (and the Induction Weeks if you are a CDT student). You will have been advised by many of us that you should explore Oxford as much as possible, but enjoying life in Oxford is not about doing everything – it is about knowing what you want to achieve and prioritising your work. You are susceptible to the 5th-week blues (a buzzword for burn-out during the middle of a term) when you sign up for many things and realise that your academic work is falling apart. Make a simple to-do list to help you stay on track, and when things go wrong, be brave enough to talk to others and sacrifice some of your commitments. Also, be humble and open-minded – the opportunity to work and live with bright minds is really what you are here for.
Have you faced any challenges in your life that you are happy to share here?
The research environment is demanding. You are, of course, fully responsible for your actions in your research, and there is no guarantee that your hard work will lead to meaningful results. I have recently had a tough lesson that a minor delay or a typo in your proof can lead to an avalanche. Therefore, I am learning to calm myself down when things go wrong, to find enjoyment when overcoming challenges, and to be realistic about my expectations. I am grateful for the opportunities to talk to many people in the department and college — their advice really prepares me for my research career.
What is your proudest achievement?
To join the vibrant community of researchers at the University of Oxford, who strive to understand the world better, for the betterment of the world.
Describe Univ in three words.
Convivial, Distinct, Thriving
Published: 26 June 2023