Laasya: Cancer Researcher, Deep Learning and Biology Enthusiast, and Baker  

Laasya is a student from the United States who attended the Summer STEM Institute (SSI). Laasya is interested in healthcare and biology, but before SSI, she never really saw herself as a programmer. However, after learning through the SSI Bootcamp courses, Laasya gained confidence in her programming abilities, and she is even currently working on developing machine learning models to classify breast cancer subtypes. For her research, Laasya recently became a finalist for the International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF)! To learn about Laasya’s journey foraying into computer science and her current work in cancer research, check out her spotlight below. 

How did you first become interested in science or research?

Since childhood, science has always been a big part of my life, whether I consciously recognized it or not. For example, back in elementary school, I vividly remember creating these concoctions of hair conditioners, soaps, and disinfectant sprays that I called “potions.” It was like magic to me. Now, I realize that I was really creating and witnessing chemical reactions at the time, and that was the start of my interest in chemistry. Apart from creating “potions,” I also loved watching roly poly bugs climb up trees as a child. I had this fascination with observing how the formation of their bodies enabled them to move as they did. This piqued my interest in zoology. Really, it’s all these small moments when I’m questioning, observing, and eventually finding connections between phenomena that not only sparked my interest in science, but also made me who I am today.  

What areas of science or technology are you currently most interested in? Are there any particular innovations in these fields that you're really excited about?

I'm most interested in studying the intersection of deep learning and biology. I also love reading about the new frontiers of artificial intelligence and robotics. Since AI as a field is changing so rapidly, it's hard to predict what's going to be the next big thing. Recently, I've been reading a lot about nanorobotics and how it’s opening up so many exciting possibilities in cancer research.

Another area of research or innovation that I’m really interested in is fully autonomous vehicles. 

Have you conducted research before SSI? If so, what was your project about? 

Yes! My first research project was in seventh grade, and I earned the chance to present my work at the Metro Richmond STEM Fair and the Virginia Junior Academy of Science Fair. It was through these science fairs that I realized that the thing I really enjoyed about the scientific research process was having the ability to connect with others as I shared my findings. There I was, standing in these halls anxiously with judges moving about. However, all my anxiety and fear was replaced with excitement when I started pouring out the knowledge and discoveries I’ve made through my research. Sharing and cultivating that mutual understanding between myself and the judges was a truly rewarding experience. 

To be honest, I don’t think that my seventh grade project was that impactful; it was about using hydrogen peroxide to see if it could stimulate plant growth, and I initially completed it only to pass the course I was taking. But looking back at it, when you finally see that click of recognition in the judges’ or viewers’ eyes at the moment when they begin to understand what you’re talking about - it truly elevates the significance of your work. The age difference between a student researcher and a judge can be large, but instigating that connection of knowledge with them, even for a fleeting moment, is incredible. It changes what people think you're capable of, which is something else that really pulls me into the world of science and research. 

What was the most valuable lesson or skill you learned from SSI?

The most valuable skill I learned over the summer was how to communicate effectively. SSI’s weekend challenges especially gave me the opportunity to build my entrepreneurial skills. I practiced and learned the importance of being able to constructively present ideas that I developed in a more concise and engaging manner. I also learned how to use design tools like Figma and created visual elements and tools to not only enhance the quality of my projects, but also to realize the importance of using visual means of communication in my research. Finally, the Masterclasses and the Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) social events were extremely helpful. Through these experiences, one of the key skills I learned was how to appropriately reach out to mentors across the world. Before SSI, I didn’t know how to initiate these kinds of communications, but the program taught me how to create opportunities for myself in a step-by-step manner. After learning about outreach, I put these skills to use. I read a lot of research papers over the summer, and I was able to reach out to a lot of people. Many of them actually responded to me and helped me with some of the questions I had, and I was able to learn a lot through these conversations. 

What was your favorite memory from SSI over the summer?

I think one of the best things about my SSI experience was bonding with other students when we were struggling to understand certain concepts. Throughout the summer, I was able to connect with and Slack message friends that I made through SSI to try to digest and figure out the complex concepts and theorems that we learned from our lectures. SSI was a challenging course, but it was really mentally stimulating and pushed me to learn more. Having that connection with people from all around the world to communicate with, people that I otherwise would not get to meet, was so interesting. 

The SSI community as a whole is so diverse and supportive. People from all different backgrounds and experiences were able all came together and supported one another throughout the summer, all connected by their passion for learning. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone involved in the program was really open to sharing advice and knowledge. I remember contacting a Masterclass speaker who was involved in aeronautics research about how I could get into designing and building remote controlled airplanes, and he responded really positively. SSI was really more than just learning about how to program and conduct data science research, and to me, that was the best part. 

How do you think SSI has changed the way you viewed data science, research, and academia? 

I've always been interested in making a bridge, or rather, a connection between writing code and seeing it in action in the real world. SSI definitely helped me cross that bridge. As we were incrementally exposed to the whole spectrum, from learning about different data structures and implementing machine learning techniques, to learning about the different avenues where tech advancements are being made, I started to really begin to understand computer science. It wasn’t so alienating anymore. From the outside, computer science seems really isolated and daunting, because learning how to code for the first time can be intimidating. I remember feeling pretty discouraged from seeing my screen flashing with error messages in the beginning stages of learning how to code. However, through undergoing the courses at SSI, I learned how to revise for efficiency and yield fewer compiling errors. The step-by-step learning process helped me realize that the elements of computer science are actually interdependent and related to elements of the day-to-day, such as designing and engineering. 

What I'm really trying to say is that computer science isn't an isolated study. Like all new things, computer science is intimidating to learn at first. SSI helped me see that learning programming is not a wall to climb, but more like a bridge to cross. It's a bridge and you have to work for it. Every time you get another compiling error, you're taking another step on that bridge, whether you’re working through realizing how interdependent computer science is, or working towards becoming a better programmer. 

Since SSI, have you been able to apply the programming skills you learned, and have you started any research projects? 

Yes! SSI gave me the confidence to pursue my first data science research project. In this project, I took poll slide images and turned them into multi-skill patch representations. I identified cancer rich patches from these H&E-stained slides to classify breast cancer subtypes using Support Vector Machines (SVMs). I'm excited to hopefully be able to share my research with the SSI community and various science fairs when I complete the project. Most recently, I qualified for the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)! 

Apart from your research project, what else have you been up to after the summer? Are there any extracurricular activities or hobbies that you’re involved in and excited about? 

Since elementary school, I've been learning a form of classical dance and playing tennis. I really enjoy playing sports; some of my favorites are badminton, volleyball, and track. In school, I’m a member of the Spanish Honor Society, Model UN, and Battle of the Brains. I also enjoy giving back to my community by volunteering at Code VA, which is a local nonprofit. I volunteer as an assistant instructor where I help the lead test software for their VEX IQ robotics team. I’m a part of the VEX VRC robotics team at my school. Finally, I’m also the Communications Liaison for the Virginia Junior Academy of Science. 

Outside of school, I love writing whenever I get bursts of inspiration. I also love baking cinnamon rolls. Recently, I’ve been trying to bake more and experiment with new flavors. I've been wanting to make a passion fruit and raspberry cake - so we'll see how that goes.

Has SSI influenced your plans for the future?

SSI really did influence my future plans in a positive way. I now have the incredible opportunity to grow the connections I’ve made with mentors, Masterclass speakers, Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) guests, instructors, and my fellow classmates. SSI really goes past enriching my interest in computer science. Because SSI has given me the exposure to all these high achieving individuals who come from such different backgrounds and experiences, I was able to explore several different avenues throughout the program. Learning from writers, entrepreneurs, researchers, programmers, and engineers really helped me gain some perspective into the various paths I can take with my future.

Speaking of your future, what are your long term career goals? Where do you see yourself in 15 to 20 years?

Because of my experiences at SSI, I can see myself at the forefront at the intersection of business and technology. Again, I’ve met such unique individuals whose experiences shaped who they are. This observation alone has opened myself to exploring new ideas. It has pushed me to try new ideas, even if they are challenging. Since SSI, I've learned not to be afraid or be limited in what I think I can and can't do. It's all part of this trial and error mentality. I've  recognized that my errors actually can help me grow as an individual. I mean, before the summer, I never saw myself as a programmer, but look where I am now!