‘A beacon of support and encouragement’: colleagues pay tribute to Dr Yifan Liu

Yifan Liu

Dr Yifan Liu

The University of Adelaide lecturer in computer science and Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) academic member Dr Yifan Liu (1993 - 2023) is remembered by colleagues as a brilliant and dedicated scholar, and a cherished friend. 

By Kurtis Eichler  

There is no doubt Dr Yifan Liu made a significant and lasting impact on the field of artificial intelligence. 

Dr Liu undertook research that explored the intricate depths of computer vision—a field of AI which allows computers to ‘see’ and derive meaningful information from visual data such as images and video. 

Her work covered knowledge distillation, generative adversarial networks, and perception tasks with 2D/3D applications, which included studies into semantic segmentation and object detection. 

But away from her research, it has been Dr Liu’s unwavering dedication to her friends, colleagues and students that has been most evident in tributes posted to social media since her death earlier this month at the age of 29.  

Those who knew Dr Liu called her a “rising star” and a “compassionate, brilliant colleague”, with one of her students leaving a simple message: “your student forever.” 

Delivering a eulogy at a service last Friday, AIML’s director, Professor Simon Lucey, said Dr Liu’s work demonstrated her “profound understanding of complex concepts and her ability to push the boundaries of knowledge.” 

“Yifan was exceptional,” he said. 

“Her impact was not confined to academia; she was recognised for her contributions to practical applications of AI in various fields.” 

Colleague and friend Dr Lingqiao Liu, a University of Adelaide senior lecturer and AIML academic member, extolled her unfailing generosity. 

"In our world of academia, there are those who shine brightly because of their intellect, and then there are those who shine even brighter because of their heart,” he said. 

"Yifan was a beacon of support and encouragement. To countless individuals, she brought moments of joy, happiness, and laughter.  

“Her presence was a gift, one that many were fortunate to receive.” 

Born in the Chinese city of Cangzhou, Dr Liu went on to study at the Beihang University in Beijing where she obtained a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in artificial intelligence.  

A bright future in machine learning was clear from her early days at Beihang, where she was named back-to-back champion in the university’s robotics competition. 

After undertaking internships at Samsung, Microsoft and Adobe, she joined AIML and the University of Adelaide as a PhD student in 2018. She was one of just six Australian students to receive a Google PhD fellowship in 2020, an award that recognised her significant contributions to computer vision research. 

When asked in 2020 by The Advertiser newspaper about what it meant to be recognised, Dr Liu said it was a “very good experience” and described how she enjoyed making computers understand the physical world. 

“To recognise and localise an object in an image is the fundamental task in computer vision,” she said. 

Dr Liu’s former academic supervisor, Professor Chunhua Shen, described the high achiever as a “shining example of dedication, intelligence and passion.” 

“She was a friend and role model to many, and her door was always open to students and junior members at AIML seeking help or advice,” he said. 

“Her warm smile and infectious laughter lit up AIML and made everyone feel welcome.” 

Dr Liu completed her PhD in early 2021 and spent nine months as a senior researcher at the University of Cambridge, contributing insights and innovative ideas to the global research community. 

She returned to AIML and the University of Adelaide as a lecturer in the School of Computer Science in late 2021, inspiring and mentoring the next generation of machine learning students and researchers.  

The following year she received two more accolades; the DAIRNet Women in AI 2022 Scholarship for her work on efficient AI in computer vision, and the Australian Pattern Recognition Society Early Career Researcher Award.  

Professor Lucey said Dr Liu’s work would continue to pave the way for future innovators in the field of computer vision. 

“Let us remember Yifan’s smile, her laughter, and the passion, dedication, and boundless curiosity that defined her,” he said. 

“Yifan’s legacy will continue to inspire us all.”

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