Headshots from left to right: Emma Holthouser, Ana Serrano, and Brian Michael Beams
The SIGGRAPH Student Volunteers program brings students from around the world together to volunteer at the annual SIGGRAPH conference. Former student volunteers Emma Holthouser, Ana Serrano, and Brian Michael Beams, who now work in industry, tech, and academia roles, took the time to talk with us about where life has taken them after SIGGRAPH. In this interview, brought to you by the SIGGRAPH 2022 Student Volunteers program, you’ll see where they are now and how SIGGRAPH played a role.
SIGGRAPH: Tell us about yourself.
Emma Holthouser (EH): Hi! I’m Emma! I am a 2020 graduate of Texas A&M’s Department of Visualization and I’m currently in my last semester of graduate school in the University of Pennsylvania’s Computer Graphics and Games Technology program. I was an active member of A&M’s ACM SIGGRAPH chapter as well as an officer for the club and also joined the University of Pennsylvania’s chapter when I started school there. Last summer, I interned virtually at Lucasfilm as a rendering engineer intern with the Advanced Development Group. I am super excited to be going back to intern again this summer.
Ana Serrano (AS): I recently got a position as an assistant professor at Universidad de Zaragoza in Spain. Previously, I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany. I obtained my Ph.D. in 2019, and, during my Ph.D., participated in several research internships in both academia (i.e., Stanford University and Max Planck Institute) and industry (Adobe Research). This experience helped me a lot in deciding which career path I wanted to pursue after my Ph.D. I also received an Adobe Research Fellowship honorable mention in 2017 and an NVIDIA Graduate Fellowship in 2018. My thesis was awarded with one of the Eurographics 2020 Ph.D. awards.
My research spans several areas of visual computing, in particular: computational imaging, material appearance perception and editing, and virtual reality, with a focus on applying perceptually motivated solutions. I am passionate about creating and applying fundamental knowledge about the perceptual system to improve human experiences and developing tools to assist content creation.
Brian Michael Beams (BMB): After graduating with my Master’s in visualization back in 2015, I did a bit of job hopping — from working as a lighting artist to freelancing with indie game studios. I eventually ended up working in academia creating innovative virtual reality projects that I’ve gotten to show all over the world, in places like Bangkok and Tokyo. After that, I taught VR design and was the director of the Imaginarium VR lab at Santa Clara University, where I worked on creating VR content for digital humanities and bioengineering researchers. I’m currently the manager of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, where I work on cutting-edge research on how people interact with each other in the metaverse.
SIGGRAPH: How did you first come across the SIGGRAPH Student Volunteers program?
EH: I first came across the Student Volunteers program during a Texas A&M ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter meeting, where former volunteers spoke about their experience volunteering. Everyone was very excited and enthusiastic about their time as a volunteer and I knew I wanted to apply to be a volunteer myself.
AS: I have been attending SIGGRAPH every year since I started my Ph.D. (in 2015!). The first year I attended, I was overwhelmed and super excited. I could not believe I was attending to such an important conference! I became aware of the Student Volunteers program at that time. Everywhere I would go, I would see volunteers helping make the conference a success. I thought it would be great to help out, too, and that it would be a nice opportunity to meet people, so the next year I applied to the program.
BMB: Gracie Arenas Strittmatter came and gave a talk about her work at Electronic Arts (EA) as well as the Student Volunteers program at SIGGRAPH. I had already been in the process of helping get the Texas A&M student chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH off the ground, but never got a chance to go to a conference. The promise of an included pass to the conference in exchange for my time sounded like a great deal, so I signed up! I was rejected my first time around but got in for SIGGRAPH 2013 in Anaheim.
SIGGRAPH: What were some of your favorite, or most memorable, experiences as a volunteer?
EH: One of my favorite parts about being a volunteer was getting to meet so many other volunteers. It was such a special opportunity to be among a large group of like-minded college students. Everyone there was just as excited as I was about the graphics industry. During my second year as a volunteer, I got to spend some shifts as a member of the C.A.T.S. team, which entailed greeting attendees in the main lobby and answering any questions people had. I loved being able to witness the buzz of the conference in the main entrance, as well as the opportunity to help guests as they first walked in. These were some of my favorite shifts because I got to see and interact with so many people.
AS: I was extremely lucky that I ended up as volunteer in the Technical Papers program committee meeting (the committee oversees the review and selection process for papers that will be presented at the conference). I could not believe I was there, meeting all these important professors and practitioners in graphics. This experience was very enriching to me, since it allowed me to see and experience this important process first-hand. I learned a lot. For the last two years, I myself have been part of this committee. Knowing a bit about how it works before joining has helped me carry out my job as committee member.
I also enjoyed a lot another of my tasks, like helping out in the [former] VR Village. At the time, I was starting my line of research in virtual reality (VR), and it was very exciting to see different experiences, everything from games to short films to experimental. I could also spending time talking to the creators, which helped me understand their opinions and their needs. I believe this greatly helped me in setting the right research questions for some of my projects.
BMB: Volunteering was really chaotic and exciting, and with all the time dedicated to helping the conference, not a lot stood out. But later, when meeting former student volunteers and team leaders at later conferences I had a great time reconnecting, and some of my good friends are people I met while working as an student volunteer.
SIGGRAPH: What journey did you take to get to where you are now in your career, and how did your experiences as a student volunteer contribute to that?
EH: Freshman-year-of-college me would’ve never guessed where I am now, but I love where I am, what I am doing, and the journey that got me here. My first year as a student volunteer was the summer after my sophomore year of college and I was still unsure of what part of the animation pipeline I wanted to specialize in. Through volunteering, I met so many other students who shared their passions and interests with me. I left each conference extremely inspired. Going into my second year as a student volunteer, I had developed an interest in shading and grooming, and created a demo reel so that I could take advantage of some great opportunities for volunteers (such as demo reel reviews). I loved shading and grooming, but was drawn to the more technical side of things. My favorite sessions to attend at SIGGRAPH were always the Technical Papers presentations. This idea was reinforced by my interest in the computer science courses I was taking at Texas A&M. I knew by my senior year that I wanted to attend graduate school to explore the more technical side of computer graphics, which led me to attend the University of Pennsylvania. I have had such a great experience and, while I am sad to be graduating, I am so excited for this summer and to intern again at Lucasfilm!
AS: I believe that doing internships in different research environments, going to conferences, meeting people, and, in general, making myself present in the field has been key in my journey. I think being a student volunteer at the beginning of my research career was instrumental for getting to know new people and understanding a bit better how SIGGRAPH works.
BMB: No one really knows where their life will take them. I certainly didn’t think I would be doing VR research when I was still in school, but the exposure to immersive technology that I got from my time with SIGGRAPH helped get me into VR in the first place. And, just recently, I was part of the [SIGGRAPH 2022] Unified Jury through which I got to review XR projects as an expert in VR design and education. It feels like things have come full circle!
SIGGRAPH: Did volunteering with SIGGRAPH have any effects that you weren’t expecting when you first applied?
EH: I met so many more people than I could have imagined. I loved the feeling of community that being a part of the conference brings. It was so much fun to be surrounded by people with similar interests and to get to experience the conference with them. Volunteering at SIGGRAPH left me super inspired to learn more and continue my education. I felt like the experience really reinforced my love for computer graphics and made me even more determined to work in the industry.
AS: Definitely! I thought that, during my service as volunteer, I would only help with some small tasks in the conference (and that was enough incentive for me), but in the end there were so many great opportunities to meet both new students, like me, and highly relevant people in the graphics community.
BMB: I didn’t expect my time with SIGGRAPH to have such a long-lasting effect on my career, or that I would still be involved in the conference nearly 10 years later. The connections and friends I made along the way were another really positive part of what I’ve been able to get from the SIGGRAPH community.
SIGGRAPH: What advice would you give to student volunteers who aspire to follow in your footsteps and venture into similar career paths as each of you?
EH: It’s important to trust yourself — don’t discount something or write it off because you think you’re not good enough or not ready yet. Also, while volunteering, make the most of it; try and put yourself out there! Take advantage of all of the opportunities the Student Volunteers program affords, such as the demo reel reviews. I got great feedback and it’s a wonderful chance to connect with folks in the industry.
AS: I would encourage you to never stop being curious and asking questions. Persevere and meet as many new people as possible. I think one of the key elements for success is that people know who you are and what you do. When you are doing great work, one would hope that is enough for making yourself known in the field, but, unfortunately, that is not always the case, especially if you come from a smaller or lesser-known university or environment. Talk to people, have fun, discuss ideas, make yourself visible in field. This is not always easy (I am quite an introvert so sometimes it takes a lot of effort!), but I really think it is worth it.
BMB: Make sure you get a Ph.D.! I’ve been able to do well with a Master’s degree, but if you’re serious about academia look at Ph.D. programs that have faculty that you are interested in working with. And, start submitting your work to SIGGRAPH now! There’s lots of great opportunities for student research to be presented at SIGGRAPH, like in the Posters program.
SIGGRAPH: Anything else you’d like to share?
AS: One of the things that made me unsure of whether or not to apply to the Student Volunteers program was the amount of commitment. I thought that perhaps I would not have time to enjoy the conference after my shifts. This was not the case at all! Even if you are serving as volunteer, there are many opportunities for learning, meeting people, and understanding how the conference works (even during your shifts). Being a student volunteer does not prevent you from enjoying the conference, it rather makes it an even more exciting and unique experience!