(Written March 2013)
My name is Kanit Wongsuphasawat or nicknamed Ham. (Why Ham?) As a Chinese descendant, I also have my Chinese name–黄德镇 (Huang-de-zhen in Mandarin or Ng-Tek-Ting in Teochew)1. I am a PhD student in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. Formerly, I was a Fulbright Scholar studying Human-Computer Interaction and Entrepreneurship at Stanford University.
I was born in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand, as a second child of my parents. I grew up in a big Thai Chinese family with 10 people living in the same house. My dad and mom are pharmacists and entrepreneurs who pioneered chain drugstores and the usage of vitamin supplements in Thailand. My dad also teaches at Mae-Fah Luang University. My brother, Krist (Muu), is closest to me in the family. When we were young, we always played together. We both love soccer and Manchester United. As we grew up, we shared similar interests in Computer and Design. Actually, he studied Human-Computer Interaction too. We are also close to our little sister, Nicha. We often take a picture of three of us and joke people that we are actually triplets.
My grandparents are also influential in my life. When I was in primary school, my grandpa always taught us English and Math after school. This certainly help me succeed in education. My grandma was also a great chef. While I am in the United States, her food is one of the things I miss the most. My auntie, her husband, and her son also live with us in the same house. With 10 people at home, it could be confusing at times but mostly we are happy to live together.
I did my formative studies at Assumption College in Bangkok from grades 1 to 12. I remembered playing Lego with my brother and trying to build new stuff from houses, castles to spaceships from those magical bricks everyday after school.
After Lego, computer had become my brother and my main toy when my dad bought our first computer, originally for his work. Within a short period, he had to buy another computer as we always occupied it. However, his plan did not work since both computers became occupied all the time instead–one by me and one by my brother. As a result, my dad had to buy a third computer and another one a few years later after my sister started to occupy the third one. While most of our friends enjoyed Nintendo 64 and subsequently Sony Playstation consoles, our toys were always computers. Moreover, as we had so many computers, my friends often joked that my home was Wongsuphasawat Computer Center when they visited.
My interests in design and technology emerged in my grade 7, when I followed my brother to join the school’s Graphics and Internet club, in which I learned how to use Photoshop and HTML to design websites. I then became interested in a club right next door, the Olympic in Informatics Club (ACIOI2), which I subsequently joined and learned how to use programming and algorithms to solve programming challenges. It was as fun as playing games. Before I really noticed, I was selected to join the National Olympiad in Informatics camp for two consecutive years in Grade 10 and 11 and I was also named as an alternative national candidate for the International Olympiad in Informatics. Meanwhile, I still developed my love for design and headed the design of my school’s yearbook.
After 2 years in the intensive programming camp, I decided not to join the camp for the third year in a row to enroll in a architect sketching course. The reason was simply to balance my time between art and science.
With love for programming and design and influence from parents who are entrepreneurs, I hoped to study Computer Engineering, Product Design and Business. However, multi-major was not available at top colleges in Thailand so I picked to study Computer Engineering.
Prior programming experience from the Olympiad Camp gave me a lot of free time for extracurricular activities including joining Photography Club, taking Charcoal Drawing Class, and authoring a Calculus Solution Guide.
My friends and I competed in local software competitions and built software applications such as Vidview and FaceSpot. I also joined Plasma-Z team in the Robot Club to develop soccer robots system and competed in the International Robocup. We were quite successful and won awards from these competition. The most important thing I got from these awards is that Besides awards, these projects helped me not only learn even more than from the classes but also discover my passion in making technology for people. Even in the Robotic club where I supposed to design a robotics system, one of the things that intrigued me the most was designing UI for our team members to test the system easily and more effectively.
Another good thing about these projects was if you did well, then you won some free trips abroad. I had been to to Singapore, Malaysia and Austria as my rewards. The trip that was the most influential for me was the Stanford Thai Exchange Program (STEP) in 2008. Although, the program was just three weeks, I was very inspired by the entrepreneurial spirits and energy of people in Stanford and Silicon Valley. For example, my host was a president of BASES and was working on two part time jobs to pay his tuition. Although he is an Economics student, he knew about new technology and startups much more than most of engineering students at my school would know. In addition, I also visited tech companies like Google, Facebook, and attending Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar. These might not sound so amazing for some of you, but for a young student who had always dreamed of Silicon Valley, it was incredible. After STEP, the idea of coming back to Stanford for graduate studies always stuck in my mind.
Back to Chulalongkorn University, I was busy with projects and thesis. Right after my undergraduate thesis presentation, I had ten days to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship. I envisioned myself as a person who could bridge the gap between technology and people. So I was deciding between Human-computer Interaction and Entrepreneurship. Both looked great for my goal. Within that period, I chose Engineering Management simply because Stanford’s Engineering Management (MS&E) program is famous for its entrepreneurship course and is also very flexible in terms of taking courses across disciplines including Computer Science and Design3. More importantly, I felt that I should study differiate from my elder brother, who was doing a PhD in Human-computer Interaction at the time.
I was fortunate to win the Fulbright Scholarship. The next step was preparing the application. For me, Stanford was like a “mission impossible” since none of alumni of my Computer Engineering department was admitted to Stanford (at least in within 10 years before me) and Stanford’s English test requirement was also very high. However, hard work paid its price. After sleepless months of preparation while working full-time, I was finally admitted to Stanford University.
In the first week at Stanford, I was deciding if I should take the Intro to HCI course (CS147) later and finish MS&E’s requirement first. I audited the first lecture and I just realized that this is my passion. Afterward I kept taking more HCI and design courses. (Thanks for MS&E program’s flexibility that allowed me to do that!)Most of my friends at Stanford even thought that I was a Computer Science student. While I also enjoyed MS&E courses, it was HCI and Design that motivated and woke me up to work each day.
I started doing research. I was also fortunate to work with a number of wonderful researchers including Scott Klemmer, Michael Bernstein and Chinmay Kulkarni for Peer Assessment in Online Classroom, Elin Pedersen and Bay Chang at Google’s HCI group in summer, Amin Saberi and Farnaz Ronaghi for the Venture Lab Project and with Neema Moraveji for the Breathwear Project, .
I also went to the CHI 2012, a major conference in Human-computer Interaction–thanks to my brother who allowed me to crash at his hotel room. My project with Neema also took me to UIST, another major HCI conference and again, it was so inspiring that I applied to top HCI PhD program and finally decided to continue to do PhD at the University of Washington’s Computer Science Department.
Thank you so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed it and hope it help you know me more. After reading all of this long bio, please feel free to shoot me an email to ask questions or comment. I also have a FAQs section below too.
Oftentimes, my short answer is: I’m from Thailand. It’s a fun country so we have funny nicknames.
In general, Thai people usually have one formal first name (usually long and elaborated) and another nickname that can be any short Thai, English or Chinese word that might not be related to our first names at all. For example, I have friends who are named Jump, Bird, etc.
So Kanit is my legal name but Ham is what people who know me personally call me. And yes, Ham is actually an English word that means meat from the upper part of a pig’s leg salted and dried or smoked. I generally prefer people to call me Ham since most people cannot pronounce Kanit correctly.
For the name Ham, it was given by my parents, and it is my parents’ word play. My brother’s nickname is Muu, which means pig in Thai. Since Ham is made from pork, Thai people commonly call Ham(the meat) transliterally “Muu-Ham”. So we are “Muu-Ham” brothers.
Now, you might also notice why this domain is yellowpigz.com. (Huáng means yellow and my brother and my names are both related to pig.)
Many Thai-Chinese families have very long Thai surnames because we created our surnames lately (mostly during my dad’s generation), and we had creative freedom to combine words to create surnames with good meanings. So if you see any Asian/Chinese-looking people with long surnames, I can bet that most of them are from Thailand. For my surname, Wong means family in Thai, Supha means happiness, wealth, or goodness and Sawat also means goodness or prosperity. So my family name roughly means family of happiness and prosperity.
You might also notice that Wong from Wongsuphasawat is actually Huáng(黄) in Cantonese4. Basically, many Thai Chinese families including mine intentionally embedded our Chinese surnames in our Thai surnames.
Photography Club was one of my best memories at Chulalongkorn University . Every year, we had a trip to national parks and took pictures of flowers and landscapes. We also liked taking portrait pictures. In one of our trips, we wore jacket suits to take pictures in a corn field like a rock band’s CD cover. We were also responsible for taking photos in the annual memorial soccer game between Chulalongkorn and Thammasat, which are two of the oldest (and the best) universities in Thailand. So, once in a lifetime, I was a professional photographer taking picture in a major sporting event.
As I was good at Math during high school and the National University Entrance Examination, a lot of my college friends bugged me to teach them Calculus during the first year. Well, teaching them all one by one was not a feasible solution. Meanwhile, photocopying (xerox) was really cheap in Thailand. Thus, I neatly wrote my solution when I worked on the exercise problems from the textbooks and just let my friends photocopied it to use as solution guide. In our freshman Calculus classes, besides the lecture, students were left to study on their own without either teaching assistant or problem solving guide. Thus, my guide–in fact, more like scratch papers–became widely popular especially in the Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Science. A week before the freshmen exam, I even had to carry several copies of this solution guide to distribute to my friends. Hundreds of students owned copies of it during my freshman year and many gave them to their juniors. As a result, these copies of my guide have helped over a thousand people to date and students are still using my guide today. For me, it is not bad at all for scratch paper and simple bootstrapping efforts.
Later in 2011, I was curious about Facebook Fan Page’s functionality so I did a fun experiment creating a page for the guide without really promoting it. Although it has been five years after I first distributed, it has so far earned over 700 likes and also some thank you posts.
Actually, no. But I am very happy that I did try. The short story was that while I did pretty well in my freshman year, studying only theoretical subjects get me bored. So I and one of my best friend, Billy, went to an Art school to study Charcoal Drawing.
I remembered we were talking about how some of our friends practiced playing guitars to sing songs for their girls, so maybe we could master drawing and draw pictures for girls too. Although we later discovered that Charcoal drawing was extremely difficult and we did not have enough time to master it, it was just memorable that we were two unorthodox engineering students who carried drawing boards around the engineering school. At least, this helped me make good conversation with friends since many of them asked me why was I carrying “this thing around”.
At Stanford, Management Science and Engineering department (MS&E) is a merger from three small, independent departments (Engineering Economic Systems, Operations Research, and Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management). As a result of a merger, the department has a broad interdisciplinary nature. MS&E Master’s program is very flexible with 8 main concentration that student can choose. Student can also design their own concentration with in any engineering and related discipline. For my case, I designed my dual concentration in Human-computer Interaction and Entrepreneurship.
If you want to call me attention, trying to call my Chinese name in Mandarin might not work since I am not used to it. ↩
ACIOI was an acronym for Assumption College International Olympiad in Informatics. We included “International” in the name is because our club was so successful at having members winning medals from the International Olympiad in Informatics. ↩
In hindsight, actually most HCI master’s program are also flexible as well due to its interdisciplinary nature. But I did not know back then. ↩