Purdue CS PhD student to serve as president of Purdue Graduate Student Government
Alex Seto’s path to leading Purdue Graduate Student Government followed several small steps. He started as senator for his department’s graduate student organization, followed by serving as chair of PGSG’s community team and then spent two years as chief of staff.
Now, Seto, a computer science Ph.D. student, is combining this experience and some sound advice from his predecessor to guide him in his new role as PGSG president for 2022-23.
“I got some good advice as I was transitioning to this role: ‘Whatever you do, as long as you’re proud of it, that’s what matters,” Seto says. “If I can accomplish something that I can be proud of, I think I can consider that a victory. Even if it’s small, we have to take our little victories sometimes. That’s also how research kind of works, too. Most people aren’t going to have the discovery of a lifetime; they’re just going to make a small dent in the literature and just kind of build on that. Hopefully, I can build on the work of my predecessors, and whoever comes after me can build on that as well.”
Here, Seto answers questions from Purdue Today about his plans for leading the organization.
What is your academic area of interest and the degree you’re pursuing at Purdue?
I’m starting my fifth year as a Ph.D. student in computer sciencea and my advisor is Assistant Professor Christinia Garman. My area of focus includes a few different things, but I’ve mostly been working on privacy-enhancing technologies. I’ve been interested in a few different topics within the field of computer security.
Why did you decide to attend Purdue?
That’s always a good question. I think it was a good opportunity that presented itself at the time. I was looking at some graduate schools, and it so happened that a professor who was doing applied cryptography and security research started here when I was looking at coming here as well. It was kind of the perfect opportunity to do something that I was interested in.
What does your role as a graduate research assistant look like? What types of research are you most interested in?
I was working on a project for a while that’s still under review that involved finding some vulnerabilities in existing software. One aspect of security and privacy is making sure existing things follow the recommended guidelines and don’t fall into the same pitfalls that we know about. We don’t really need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to make sure that we don’t keep making the same mistakes.
What do you like most about what you do at Purdue?
I’ve really come to enjoy all the people here. I really like getting involved, meeting other people and knowing what’s happening around campus. I’m just grateful for the friends that I’ve been able to make during my time here.
What has been your favorite memory during your time at Purdue?
I remember I had a really difficult project for one of my classes, and when we all collectively finished it, I think it was a really good experience. It was a monthlong project for an operating systems class. I think through that shared ordeal, I made a lot of friends, and I still keep in contact with the ones who haven’t graduated yet.
What do you most like to do on or around campus?
I really like the food around here. That’s not something I was expecting when I decided to come to Purdue, but the variety of food is just really impressive. I’m pretty happy eating anywhere, but some of my favorite local restaurants are Sharma’s Kitchen, Sichuan House and Yagaratsu. I think the most authentic Chinese food I’ve had is from here, and there are a ton of Indian restaurants that a bunch of students here always recommend.
When did you first become involved with PGSG, and why did you decide to join?
I originally went to the PGSG callout with some friends back in 2018, but I didn’t join then. I was involved with the Computer Science Graduate Student Organization, and one of the roles was being a senator for PGSG. After a year in the organization, I got involved as a senator. I started attending PGSG meetings and was relaying information back and forth between PGSG and my department. From there, I think the chair of the community team I was on in PGSG was going to do some fieldwork and had to step down, so I became co-chair, along with a few other people. It kind of just escalated from there. Someone nominated me to run for the chief of staff position, so I did that for two years. Then I was encouraged to run for this position, and here I am.
What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishments since becoming a PGSG member?
We’ve established some advocacy frameworks for graduate students to help guide our priorities each year, so I think that advocacy work in general is something I’m proud of. I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on different committees over the last few years, and I think some of them have been very impactful. I was on an advisory committee for the University Senate about sexual assault prevention, and we were basically just trying to amplify the concern from grad students about that and trying to get some action taken. As of last May, there are some things that the University has agreed to implement, but we still have some things pending that we would like to implement as well.
What have you learned about the University from your time as a PGSG member?
It’s very large. There are a lot of moving parts and different departments and groups that you have to go through, and I think part of the challenge has been trying to figure out how to navigate that. I’m really lucky that my predecessor, Madelina Nuñez, put in a bunch of effort to introduce me to everyone, so I’m getting to know who’s who. There are a lot of different people to meet with and a lot of different things going on at the same time.
What have you learned as a member that will help guide your leadership this year?
I got some good advice as I was transitioning to this role: Whatever you do, as long as you’re proud of it, that’s what matters. If I can accomplish something that I can be proud of, I think I can consider that a victory. Even if it’s small, we have to take our little victories sometimes. That’s also how research kind of works, too. Most people aren’t going to have the discovery of a lifetime; they’re just going to make a small dent in the literature and just kind of build on that. Hopefully, I can build on the work of my predecessors, and whoever comes after me can build on that as well.
What will PGSG be working on during the upcoming year? What do you hope the organization will accomplish under your leadership?
There are a few things that we’ve generally been hearing from graduate students, and one of them is the cost of living, particularly related to housing. I know there are plans in the pipeline for housing, so I just want to make sure we keep tabs on these and see that things are moving forward. I think something a little bit more direct and actionable is a collaboration we’ll be working on with the Graduate School for a student-faculty mentorship initiative. The school is trying to create an outline for mentorship practices for faculty, and they’re seeing how that could help create the best faculty-student relationships. Things happen every year, and we have to act and react to see what the different landscape is. I think a lot of it is just going to be staying agile and making sure we hear from graduate students, take their input and advocate for what they’re concerned about.
What would you like students to know about PGSG?
They’re welcomed to get involved. It sounds kind of scary at first, but we’re very welcoming. We’re happy to have people to volunteer, and we have food, which is a big draw for graduate students. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t part of the original reason I attended the callout. Having more input is always positive and can help shape the direction we’re taking. As a senator and team member, the time commitment is very minimal, but it’s kind of what you want to make of it. It’s as little as one meeting a month, but it can scale up from there depending on how much you want to be involved.
How can students get involved with PGSG?
You can get involved whenever — it doesn’t have to be at the callout. The callout is when we give a lot of information at once, but if anyone wants to get involved, they’re welcome to show up any time we have a meeting or event and ask how to join. We’re always happy to have more people join us.