After change of course, IST alumnus lands career in academics

Emma Riglin
April 28, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Porter Jenkins came to Penn State to pursue a doctorate in marketing, he never imagined he’d one day have a full-time career in academics, teaching and conducting research on data sciences and machine learning. He had never had formal training, or much interest, in computing. But, he soon recognized that his true passion was data sciences — for which he built a foundation at Bringham Young University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in statistics, and honed in industry for a few years.

“There was a lot of opportunity for me [in marketing] but I wasn't in love with kind of the type of work I was doing,” said Jenkins. “I was doing a lot of stuff with data, so that part was great, but the narrower application wasn't as interesting to me.”

Jenkins started taking more College of Information Sciences and Technology classes in computing and data mining, where he met his now mentor Jessie Li, associate professor of information sciences and technology.

“It was the data mining class that I took with Jessie that made me realize that was exactly what I wanted to be doing,” said Jenkins. “She was very open minded when I asked her to join her lab, and she was my advocate in the college that facilitated my transition to IST.”

“Porter did not come from a computational background,” said Li. “He worked extremely hard to improve his computational skillset."

During his time in the college, Jenkins did research in machine learning with Li and participated in an internship with Pinterest in the summer of 2019, where he was offered a full-time position. While Jenkins was excited, he wasn’t sure it was the right fit for him. While he aspired to one day be a professor, the field is very competitive. He thought the chances of getting a faculty position were very low, but Li encouraged him to apply. Throughout the next year, Jenkins interviewed with many universities while keeping his offer with Pinterest in mind.

“I had an offer on the table, but I was getting interest from universities,” Jenkins said. “I took a gamble and I turned down Pinterest, because I believed in myself.”

His gamble paid off. Jenkins accepted a full-time position as an assistant professor in the computer science department at his alma mater, Brigham Young University, in January and started March 1.

“I wish I could have planned all of this, but it just kind of worked out,” said Jenkins. “It feels amazing to be back in Utah and teaching where I went to school. I still can't even believe it happened, it’s too perfect.”

Jenkins is currently developing an introductory data sciences course for freshmen and sophomores who don't have a lot of technical knowledge but are interested in the concepts, as well as doing research on machine learning. He recently presented a paper at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Conference which focused on machine learning recommendations. Jenkins said he used some of his marketing knowledge from his economics classes to create equations for recommendation algorithms, which helps the machines not only learn from data, but also from economics so that they can make better recommendations with less data.

Jenkins said his IST knowledge will help him tremendously in his new position. His research and teaching at Brigham Young University are continuations of work he did with Li in artificial intelligence, and he feels that he brings a unique perspective to the department.

“I have a bit of an outsider's perspective on computer science from my bachelor's in statistics and a Ph.D. in IST, which is so interdisciplinary,” said Jenkins.

He added, “Working with Jessie, I was able to see the impact you can have on students’ lives as a professor. Jessie changed my life in a very meaningful way. I want to be able to do that for my students.”

“Porter never thought of this career path when he joined my research group,” said Li. “He was so dedicated to his work and so determined to make things work. Most importantly, he is open to new challenges and he is not afraid of taking bold moves.”

Jenkins’ advice to students in his position is to have faith in themselves.

“You're always going to be looking ahead with a little bit of uncertainty, and that's okay,” said Jenkins. “If you work hard and believe in yourself, everything will work out."

Last Updated April 28, 2021