CSpotlight: Machine Learning and Neuroscience

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?

The University of Minnesota has a very competitive computer science program and it's reasonably affordable and only a half hour from my hometown. It was a natural choice to pursue my career goals and further my education at the University of Minnesota. I really love the community here on campus. I think it really offers a welcoming and diverse presence.

How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?

I've been interested in computers and technology since I was very young. I was begging my dad to let me install video games on his computer when I was 11. I built my own computer at 14. I took my first computer science course at 15 and I quickly left high school early through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program to start my degree here when I was 16. Machine learning in particular has become a strong passion of mine and as I continue to expand my horizons. I never fail to find different innovations and projects that really capture my attention and get me excited to work on my own projects. Recently, I've gotten into computational neuroscience in my research lab. I'm fascinated by studying the mind and exploring its effects in psychology and perception.” 

Tell us more about your internship experiences.

This past summer I had the pleasure of interning at Tableau in Seattle, a division of Salesforce with an office right on Lake Union in Fremont. I learned a tremendous amount working there. I got to contribute to some very cool projects. Mainly, I contributed to building spatial parameter modules on the maps team, which encapsulate geospatial information within the Tableau Maps environment. I absolutely loved it there. I felt like I fit right in. I also loved working in Seattle. It’s one of the most culturally vibrant and technologically advanced cities in the entire world. Living there is a pleasure and it sort of feels like my home away from home. I plan to move there eventually after completing my studies here.

Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved?

I'm a member of the varsity CS:GO Team at the Esports Club. I'm also an active member of the Psychedelic Education Club here on campus. I'm fascinated with the study of the mind and especially how psychedelics can alter and enhance its function. I hope to be able to eventually contribute to research in this space so I can continue to help educate and inform my community on psychedelics. I've read a lot of the psychedelic research that has come from professors here, at the University of Minnesota, as well as in the public literature. I think there's a lot of potential for clinical applications as well as public applications just to be able to personally develop your identity and yourself. Psychedelics are something we have stigmatized as a community, and I think that's a shame. I think that education is the cure for that so that's why I've gotten involved.

What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?

The main thing that I can contribute to the computer science community is to broaden its horizons. I think that there exists a computer science bubble inside of both the University of Minnesota community, but also inside of technological circles in general. It's very easy to get trapped in this bubble. Computer scientists often only work on computational problems, and stay within tech as a field. But we ignore the fact that most, if not a vast majority, of the applications for this technology exist outside of that bubble. That's something that I didn't realize until I was a master’s student branching out into a graduate minor. The best advice I can give for people in the computer science program and in general is to branch out a little bit. Try and find projects that are interesting to you that have a broader impact and that have a different application than just writing code for apps.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

I've had a wonderful time talking to professors outside of class environments. These are people who have spent most of their lives dutifully studying a topic or field. So just offering to buy your professor a coffee and soak in some of their knowledge, has led to some of my more interesting conversations. I've especially had great talks with Paul Schrater, who is my graduate faculty advisor. I think I'm going to continue doing this, and I would encourage other students to reach out to your professors more and try and soak in some of that great knowledge that they can't always communicate in class.

What are your plans after graduation?

I have a job lined up as a computer vision scientist here in Minnesota at a research lab called BBN Technologies. I'll be building computer vision tools for them that are used to enhance current technologies and research. One of the projects they're working on right now is building augmented reality first aid glasses to aid soldiers in performing first aid. It will guide you through first aid practice as you're applying a tourniquet or other medicinal techniques. I also have a pending application to the Ph.D. program here at the University of Minnesota, which I plan to do part time alongside my job in the industry for the next couple of years. 

Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight in the article?

I’m currently working in Thomas Naselaris’ lab. It's a computational neuroscience lab. I'm working on a project called “Second Sight”, where we are decoding and reconstructing visual imagery from fMRI brain activity. I've absolutely loved working on this. It combines my interest in neuroscience with my focus on machine learning. As we apply and leverage a lot of these new technologies, like stable diffusion and a lot of other machine learning models, to get a better idea of what's going on inside the visual cortex as your mind is processing its retinal information. We have lots of promising preliminary results so far, and we hope to publish them at a major conference in the next couple of months.