Cognitive Science alum steers to a career in machine learning

Diana Tinio stands in front of the Fresno State entrance sign in her graduation regalia.

“Our main job was to instruct deep neural networks for Tesla vehicles to drive autonomously. We had to label images, and these images range from cars on the road to street lanes or stoplights,” said Fresno State Linguistics Department alumna Diana Tinio when asked to explain her job at Tesla.

Tinio graduated from Fresno State in May 2020 with a B.S. in Cognitive Science, the only bachelor of science degree offered in the College of Arts and Humanities. Cognitive Science is an emerging field housed in the Department of Linguistics that brings together various approaches to studying human cognition. 

“It’s very interdisciplinary. There are a lot of fields that go into it. There’s linguistics, psychology, anthropology, computer science,” Tinio said.

At Fresno State, she credits her professors with giving her the advice she needed to pursue her passion. Her advisor, Professor Sean Fulop, helped her choose courses to focus on artificial intelligence and computer coding. Professor Brian Agbayani introduced her to cognitive science and the relationship between language and mind, and Dr. Jidong Chen was instrumental in getting Tinio into bilingualism.

“It’s a ‘choose-your-own-adventure kind of degree,” said Fulop, chair of the Department of Linguistics. “Each student gets to decide if they want to concentrate more on Linguistics, Psychology, or Computer Science, and it’s really the computer skills that open doors with technology companies.”

A few months after graduating, Tinio got a job at the Tesla office in San Mateo as a Data Analyst for the Autopilot team. She labeled images, then used Tesla’s proprietary autopilot interface to feed the annotated images into the neural networks where the vehicles train themselves through machine learning.

“It takes a lot for the vehicle to learn one small thing. So we get millions of images from around the world – so it’s not just in the U.S. That is how they train, or how they learn what the roads are, what the road markers are, the streetlights or if there are pedestrians crossing.”

With each image, the team would create labels and outline various aspects for the system to learn. For example, with pedestrians, she said they would feed photos of different shapes, colors and different labels or visual markers.  

Tinio said that many of the projects she signed off on went into production and she was able to experience the outcome of her team’s work in Tesla vehicles. She was later promoted to a training and support role where she had the opportunity to work with management on new projects and initiatives. 

“I love that about Tesla. There is always room for growth. They are actually always helping you. If you tell them you want to become a manager, they are always going to help you.”

In under two years at Tesla, Tinio was promoted twice and was in the running for a management position. However, she recently left Tesla to pursue a masters degree in computational linguistics at San Diego State University. 

With her love for problem-solving and computer coding, Tinio said there are many jobs for computational linguists in larger technology companies, such as Amazon and Tesla. She hopes to remain in the machine learning and artificial intelligence fields after she completes her masters degree.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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