A Conversation with Lars Holdijk

Curious to know how the ELLIS unit Amsterdam MSc Honours Programmempacts a student’s career path? Lars Holdijk shares with us his experience as an ELLIS Amsterdam Honours student from the year 2021-2022; how it provides him a unique insight and opportunity to depart for his next journey as a doctoral student.
Holdijk has recently become a doctoral student at the University of Oxford. Prior to that, he was a master’s student in artificial intelligence at the University of Amsterdam. His interest includes a wide range of topics in machine learning such as probabilistic modeling, interpretability, and robustness. Connect with Lars via Twitter.
Top-notch Research

Tell us about your Honours Programme journey. ‘I joined the ELLIS Honours Programme in the first year of my AI masters in Amsterdam with prof. Max Welling (University of Amsterdam) and prof. Yarin Gal (University of Oxford) as my supervisors. Before joining the masters, I had been involved in research in various ways and wanted to continue this in addition to the courses I was taking. The ELLIS Honours Programme sounded to me like the perfect opportunity for this.’

He added: ‘During the first few months of the programme, I was still taking courses in Amsterdam so my work was mostly with prof. Welling and a postdoc of his, dr. Priyank Jaini. During this time, we worked on a project where we tried to incorporate concepts from geometric deep learning in generative modeling. Later this work was published at the NeurIPS conference, one of the learning conferences in the field of deep learning.’

‘We followed this work up with a more application-based project where we collaborated with prof. Bernd Ensing from the Computational Chemistry department on using stochastic optimal control for sampling rare transition paths between molecular conformations which we presented at conference workshops at the ICML and the NeurIPS.’

The Oxford Exchange
Holdijk: ‘In my second year, I visited prof. Gal’s OATML lab in Oxford for my ELLIS Amsterdam’s Honours exchange during which I worked with PhD students in his lab on their Non-Parametric Transformers, an interesting novel attention-based architecture. During my time in Oxford, I was able to fully integrate with prof. Gals lab. I joined seminars, group lunches, and after-work pub visits.’

‘I feel very grateful for receiving this opportunity to experience the life at a different university and the insight it gave me into life as a PhD student there.’

He further said: ‘As a result of the warm welcome I received at the host university I even decided to extend my visit from 3 months to the entire academic year. In fact, I still haven’t left. After finishing my Honours Programme and my master almost 6 months ago I started a DPhil (Oxford for PhD) at the University of Oxford.’ Would you say that the Honours Programme helped achieve your goal? 

‘Having the opportunity to visit Oxford, especially during the application season, and making in-person connections, definitely helped me with the process of getting accepted for the DPhil. In addition to this, both my supervisors helped me a lot in the application process, either by helping me tailor my application statement or writing a reference letter.’


Remarkable Moments

Holdijk: ‘One of them is the acceptance of the first paper I wrote during the programme to NeurIPS and the opportunity to present our work there. While it is a shame that NeurIPS was not in person that year, it was still a great experience.’

He then shared another memorable moment: ‘when I was joined in Oxford by another student from Amsterdam, Frederik Nolte, a friend of mine from the AI master programme in Amsterdam, had joined the ELLIS honours programme and was also hosted by the University of Oxford. Due to the contacts I had made in Oxford I helped Frederik with organising his stay and accommodation in Oxford and we ended up staying at the same college (Oxford’s equivalent of the houses in Hogwarts). While I’m sure Frederik would have been able to figure this out by himself, it showed to me how initiatives such as the ELLIS can greatly reduce the overhead of organising academic exchanges and stays.’

The Way Forward

So, what is next for you? ‘I’m still in the very early stage within my PhD programme and it’s hard to look much further than a few months ahead.’

‘What I do know is that I am currently really enjoying the work that I am doing as a continuation of my master’s thesis in collaboration with prof. Welling and prof. Ensing. For the last few months we have been working on improving some of the work I did during the programme and it is looking very promising. Continuing this work in the coming months and integrating it into my PhD is something that I am looking forward to.’

He added: ‘Besides that, there’s a lot of stuff that I would like to do during the PhD; more academic visits, attending some in-person conferences, doing an industry internship, etc. Hopefully, ELLIS will also somehow be involved in this.’

Seizing the Opportunities

What advice would you give to Master AI students who have just started? 

‘I’m going to answer this question with a focus on students that have an interest in continuing their education in the form of a PhD after they are done in Amsterdam. There is the obvious answer “Join the Honours Program”, but there is a lot more outside of that.’

‘Within the ELLIS initiatives, there are tons of interesting events held and there are a lot of opportunities to get involved with them. If you have the time for it, check out one or two of the workshops that are being organised or simply join a reading group. These are all great ways to meet PhD students and researchers throughout Europe. Who knows what comes from it?’

The ELLIS unit Amsterdam MSc Honours Programme aims at providing masters’ students in artificial intelligence, computer science, computational linguistics, and related fields a first-hand experience with international research collaboration, and connecting them to Europe’s best researchers through the ELLIS network. Find out more information about the Msc Honours Programme