• CONNECT

Vivienne Sze: Professor at MIT + Role Model for Women in Computing

Interview

This is part of Northern Notables, a collection of interviews with NSS Alumni who have made an impact in the world.
Do you use a cell phone for taking photos or making videos? Vivienne Sze NSS’99 played a key role in making this happen.

by Merilyn McKelvey

Vivienne Sze was part of the team that developed the acclaimed image/video compression standard called H.265/HEVC that is used in smartphones today with photos and videos that use the extensions .HEIC and .HEIF. Video compression standards are required to ensure that video compressed on one device, e.g. your Samsung Galaxy phone, can be decompressed by another device, e.g. your friend's iPad.
Vivienne went on to design energy-efficient computer chips for video compression. Video compression reduces the file size of a video, which is required whenever you store or transmit video files; while energy efficiency is necessary so that we can watch and capture videos on our phones without draining our batteries too quickly.
Vivienne’s work has been recognized with many awards – most notably the Primetime Engineering Emmy Award in 2017 for developing the acclaimed High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard with her collaborators on the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC)
Primetime Engineering Emmy Award 2017 – Vivienne Sze + Co
Vivienne Sze receiving the Primetime Engineering Emmy Award in 2017 with her colleagues on the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC).
Vivienne was the inaugural winner, in 2020, of the Rising Star Award of ACM-W (Association for Computing Machinery – Council on Women in Computing), which recognizes a woman whose early career research has had a significant impact on the computing discipline, as measured by factors such as: frequent citation of their work, creation of a new research area, a high degree of technology transfer, and/or other positive influences and societal impact. 
Check out Google Scholar for Vivienne’s many publications.
While at Northern, Vivienne was a member of the tennis team and tutor at the Kumon Institute of Education. About her high school experience, she writes:  
"After performing well on the Grade 9 assessment test, I was asked to join the Grade 9/10 accelerated math class. Through that class and in the subsequent years, I was encouraged to participate in various math competitions. While my primary motivation for participating was extra credit, I got much more out of it than that. The math competitions involved tackling very challenging math problems. The experience taught me that it was ok to be completely confused at first, and that I could tackle this problem by trying to approach it from different angles and breaking it down into smaller pieces that are easier to process in order to make progress. This is the same approach we apply today when tackling unwieldy and complex research problems.”."
"In Grade 11, I took an economics class where we had to write a term report on career planning. The assignment encouraged me to start thinking about what to do after high school. We had to identify growing fields (I chose the tech industry), select a career within this field (I chose computer engineering) and then figure out the steps needed to have that career (e.g., what kind of training is required – in this case, an engineering degree from a university, the high school courses required to get into that university program, the cost of the program). This assignment gave me a concrete idea of not only where to go next in my career, but also how to get there."
Vivienne went on to earn degrees from the University of Toronto and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Professor Sze now teaches in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department at MIT. She performs research on how to design computer chips for energy-efficient artificial intelligence (AI) for applications in robotics and health care.
At MIT, she heads up the Energy-efficient Multimedia Systems Group.
Vivienne Sze
Vivienne Sze with NSS'99 classmates Nooriyah (Doctor) Singh and Michelle McKelvey in 2013
Recalling her time at Northern, Vivienne reminisced:
"I have so many fond memories of laughing with friends in the hallways at NSS, whether it was between classes, lunch hours, or after school. I'm grateful for the friendships I was able to forge back then, and that, despite having to be away from Toronto for the past few decades, I was able to remain close with them and their families. They bring so much joy and happiness into my life."

LINKS

Interviewer Merilyn McKelvey is a former NSS teacher who taught in the Special Education and Canadian & World Issues departments. She was staff advisor for many extra curricular activities including soccer, skiing, snowboarding, debating, DECA, and yearbook. Two of her three children, Michelle and Alex, attended Northern. Prior to teaching, she was an urban planner working with municipalities and community groups across Canada. She has served on the boards of various organizations including the Massey Centre for Women. Merilyn is a Director on the NSS Foundation.