There’s No Place Like Reed

For Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science Olive Franzese, there’s no place like Reed. Franzese graduated from Reed in 2017 with an interdisciplinary degree at the intersection of Biology, Math, and Computer Science, and has been thinking about the college ever since. “Pretty much ever since I left Reed, I’ve been thinking about it, …” Franzese said, “the environment of R1 schools is so different [from] a place like this. There’s so much less focus on holistic learning and on having a good foundation for what you’re doing. … I’ve missed the environment here — the attitude of really valuing pedagogy and ensuring … a quality education experience rather than [just] forwarding your career. … So when the opportunity [to teach at Reed] came along, I really jumped on it. And I’m really glad I did.”

Since leaving Reed, Franzese has worked in the fields of cryptography and machine learning, and is currently researching techniques for protecting user privacy in the training of machine learning algorithms. Such algorithms, which form the foundations of many modern computing innovations — including tools like Dall-E and ChatGPT — rely on vast databases of training data that guide their behavior. Franzese, however, has concerns about the implications of these technologies for user privacy. “The big data era … has created an incentive structure where lots of tech companies are very incentivized to extract as much data from users as they can,” Franzese said, “And that’s engendered a lot of privacy concerns. The field of privacy-preserving machine learning aims to enable the training of some of these machine learning models, but with guarantees on the privacy of users. So that we can mitigate these privacy crises while enabling the potentially good applications of these machine learning models.” Franzese pointed to the use of medical data in collaborative training of machine learning models, during which highly sensitive information is potentially exposed, as a case in which her work would be particularly vital.

Franzese is a current Doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, alongside her husband — fellow Reedie Pema McLaughlin — who is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the same institution. While Franzese is excited about her current work at the graduate level, she recalled fond memories of her undergraduate CS education at Reed. “The most intellectually changing course that I took was Computability and Complexity … with Adam Gross,” Franzese said, “It revealed a lot of the theoretical backbone behind CS and had a big impact on my thinking. … Computability and Complexity shows you the limits of what it’s even theoretically possible to do with computation, and knowing that these hard limits existed was a big challenge to a technological utopianism/scientific utopianism that had been developing in me before that point, and I think that was really, really valuable to have those viewpoints challenged.”

While Franzese jokes that her “personal life currently is primarily occupied by this job,” she still finds time in a busy schedule to explore the city, and is currently endeavoring to revisit all of her favorite restaurants from her time as an undergraduate at Reed — what she describes as “a very long list.” When not driving out to the coast or going for long walks in the Reed Canyon, Franzese might be found playing Celeste or Disco Elysium, two of her favorite games, or watching her favorite movie: Everything Everywhere All At Once. While her favorite book of all time remains Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the sci-fi opus has recently met a challenger in Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth, which Franzese describes as “my favorite recent book.” 

Returning to Reed after years away, Franzese has found herself pleasantly surprised to find the college unchanged. “When I got the opportunity to come back to Reed, I had to brace myself — I expected for this place that was once my home to feel foreign,” Franzese said, “Almost all of the people I knew from that time in my life have gone elsewhere, and many of the traditions that were important to my Reed experience had been disrupted or halted altogether (partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, partly due to the simple passage of time). Despite this, I feel so much familiarity on campus. Every day I see students who remind me of old friends. I see graffiti on bathroom walls indistinguishable from something that would have been written when I was a student here. On some visceral level, a Reedie is still a Reedie. And that fills me with fondness.”

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