Category Archives: Research

How to Teach a Computer to Write Stories

This is part of a three part series detailing the computer science senior thesis projects. 

While computers writing stories from scratch may sound like something from science fiction, Melanie Subbiah disagrees. For her senior thesis in computer science, Melanie is teaching computers to write new stories on their own, a cutting edge field called open narrative generation. She’s always loved creative writing and has taken many Williams College literature and writing courses.  While struggling to decide on a thesis topic she says,  “it suddenly occurred to me, why not study creative writing from a computer science standpoint?”
Working with Williams Professor Andrea Danyluk, an expert on machine learning, she has developed a process to guide computers through the creative steps. First, she gives the computer a collection of stories written by regular authors to analyze. Computers require inspiration in the same way humans do! She has the computer identify the paragraphs, sentences, words, and parts of speech. With all these notes the existing stories can be broken down into patterns, something computers are adept at handling. 
In the rectangles are two short and unique stories. While they may seem very different, they can be broken down into the same pattern below. Melanie uses a large collection of human stories to identify these kinds of patterns and then automatically generate a new story by using portions of the pattern of different stories.
Good stories have a moving plot filled with impactful events. So, Melanie has designed algorithms the computer can use to identify the events of the stories. Then, it’s time to generate a new plot. She uses an increasingly popular machine learning tool called a neural network. A neural network mimics the human brain by using many neurons. Each neuron might be responsible for a very specific pattern, or in the case of our brains a memory or function. When they receive the right stimulus, e.g. a phrase or event, they fire and produce a new result. Her neural network uses the collection of events it learned from other stories to create a new plot. 
As any writer can attest, storywriting does not stop when you come up with a plot. What parts of the plot do you tell the reader? From what perspective? With what details and emotion? Melanie builds on existing work to transform the computer’s plot into sentences that we can then enjoy. 
By the end of the year, she will have several stories authored by computers as well as evaluations on how logical  and original they are. She’s very excited to continue this work, and it’s helping her decide if and where she wants to attend graduate school.
Melanie’s process, her pipeline, starts with human written stories and breaks them down into patterns. Then, she builds up a new story by taking bits and pieces from all the patterns the computer has learned.


Melanie Subbiah, Class of 2017












The splash image for this post is from this site and is not owned or originally produced by The ScientEphic. 

The Other Genome: A Profile of Biology Prof Ben Carone

By Meagan Goldman ’16

Image at top: Professor Ben Carone with his students at this year’s biology thesis poster session. From left to right: Ronak Dave ’17, Emily Shea ’16, Ben Carone, Sierra McDonald ’16.

Ben Carone is a heretic. Part philosopher, part biologist, he stumbled as an undergraduate upon a branch of genetics that challenges one of biology’s most accepted dogmas. Once he found the field, there was no turning back. He used to think a lot about the meaning of life, he told me, but philosophy didn’t help him much with that. It was science – and belief in his research – that hooked him.

His blasphemy is this: Charles Darwin was wrong. At least, he was partly wrong. Across a bare desk in his basement office at Williams College, Carone explained to me that in the nineteenth century, two dueling theorists proposed their own versions of evolution. One was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the other Darwin.

Continue reading The Other Genome: A Profile of Biology Prof Ben Carone

The Space Between the Stars: Astronomy Students Study Interstellar Medium

By Marcus Hughes ’18

The space between stars is emptier than any vacuum we can create on Earth, but it still contains dust, hydrogen, helium, more hydrogen, some carbon, and more hydrogen. This “interstellar medium” is a critical part of the galaxy because it’s where stars are born and die.

The main telescope in the observatory, the 24-inch telescope is the large white tube at the center. Light comes in the top of the tube, reflects off a mirror at the bottom, and then reflects off another mirror before passing through a filter and into the camera, the large blue and black parts at the bottom of the telescope. Around the main telescope there are other smaller telescopes that can be looked into with just your eye, no camera needed. These are used to get a second look or sometimes to look at the sun.

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Kiki Landers on How She Fell in Love with Her Research

By Elizabeth Jacobsen ’16

Writing a thesis is a lot like being in a relationship. It requires time, dedication, and a spark that makes the effort worthwhile. Kiki Landers is working on her biology thesis with Dawn Carone, studying RNA and cancer. She is a bright, friendly people-person, yet she has devoted most of her year to studying microscopic cells in a windowless lab. I appropriated a few moments of her all-too-rare free time to ask her about the driving forces behind her thesis work. Here she shares the story of how she developed a passion for cancer research that will carry on in her post-graduate career and how she changed in the process—in short, the story of how she fell in love with her research. 

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Physics professor teams up with biologists to explore protein translation

By Meagan Goldman ’16

Two disciplines are better than one. That’s what Daniel Aalberts, Professor of Physics at Williams, has realized through his collaboration with biology researchers. His team, which in January published a paper in Nature, used a combination of wet lab techniques and statistical models to discover a mechanism that allows some proteins to be expressed at higher levels than others. Their findings have exciting implications for the enzyme manufacturing industry and for scientists who need to produce large quantities of proteins for their experiments.

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Nancy Piatczyc’s Microscopic World

By Meagan Goldman ’16

This article was inspired by Art of Science, an initiative to gather and exhibit scientific images from students, faculty, and staff. For more information, visit the Art of Science site.

“It’s endlessly fun looking at these things,” says Nancy Piatczyc while enlarging a black and white image on her computer. As the image focuses, striations appear. Without context, it might be difficult to identify what it shows: a tiny fragment of wood magnified thousands of times by a scanning electron microscope (SEM). The wood is from a ship, likely British, that sank near the New York harbor around the time of the Revolutionary War. The SEM images will help biology professor Hank Art identify the wood from which the ship was built.

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Trout Fishing in the Hoosic River: Students Investigate Local River Pollution

By Meagan Goldman ’16

On an early August day this summer, Marissa Shieh and Allie Rowe, two Williams chemistry students, found themselves wading waist-deep through the Hoosic River, scooping trout into a bin. Behind them, a metal boat pushed by scientists from the Massachusetts State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife sent electrical shocks through the water, stunning the fish and facilitating the chase in a process called electrofishing. Continue reading Trout Fishing in the Hoosic River: Students Investigate Local River Pollution

Plants in Action: Joan Edwards on Rapid Plant Behaviors

 By Laurel Hamers ’14


JoanEdwardsWilliams College Professor of Biology Joan Edwards oozes excitement about plants, able to turn a subject that most associate with endless Latin names and obscure botanical terminology into a fascinating examination of the unique characteristics (personalities, almost) of different plant species and the unexpected ways in which they adapt to their environment. Her research focuses on the mechanisms by which plants increase their reproductive success through adaptations for pollination and seed dispersal. In particular, she is interested in what she describes as “ultra-fast plant movement.” Edwards acknowledges the seemingly contradictory nature of the terminology. “You never think of plants as doing anything fast,” she says, “but they do—and they can do things extraordinarily fast.”

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