“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh
Have you heard of “CS + X?” It refers to the intersection of computer science with another area of interest, such as art. Savitha’s journey captures this intersection! Read her feature to learn what transformed a little girl’s dreams of being a doctor (who has the power to give give lollipops and stickers to kids) to someone who says “CS reshaped my dreams.”
Savitha is an advocate for CS, inspirational speaker, and an accomplished and award-winning young woman:
- Intel International Science & Engineering Fair Finalist (2018 & 2017); this year at ISEF, I placed 2nd in the Robotics and Intelligent Machines Category
- Stanford University: She++ #include Fellow (2018, one of 30 fellows selected nationally). Collaborated with other women to tackle diversity in tech challenges.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) THINK Scholars semi-finalist (2018, one of 13/175+ applicants).
- 2018 TedxInterlakeHighSchool Speaker
Tell us about yourself along with a fun fact!
Hi! I’m Savitha, a coffee-lover from the home of Starbucks, who loves watching the gentle pitter-patter of rain on Lake Washington. As a classical Indian dancer, violinist, and computer scientist, I love creating. Over time, I’ve found that Art and Computer Science (CS) share a lot; they are both powerful mediums through which I can create anything – from dance choreography on Van Gogh to machine learning algorithms to detect melanoma – and redefine the world. However, it wasn’t always this way. As a freshman in AP Computer Science and one of only a handful of girls in a class of 30, I remember feeling daunted—and wondering why I hadn’t joined the ceramics elective class that all my friends had opted for. I stopped regretting my decision very soon when I wrote a program to draw a rose, using polar coordinates and Java’s graphics packages. I realized that just as with art, I could create anything with code. That’s what made me love CS. My experience also got me wondering: How could I get more people, who, like me, considered themselves “artsy” but not necessarily “tech-ie,” interested in technology and to realize its potential for diverse applications?
This inspired me to found “She Codes Art” (www.shecodesart.weebly.com), a non-profit which teaches CS fundamentals through art-related activities to girls and other underrepresented minorities
In partnership with Art You (www.art-you.org, a Bellevue based non-profit that aims to foster appreciation of classical/cultural art among youth) and Jubilee REACH (https://www.jubileereach.org, a Bellevue, WA non-profit that provides access to assistance programs and services to youth), we have developed three different art+tech curriculum modules to teach CS fundamentals to elementary/middle school girls and minorities.Our curriculum includes exciting topics like mobile app prototyping for needs in the arts space or using Scratch to create music videos and photographic filters. Over the past year we’ve conducted 25+ workshops and impacted 100+ youth in the greater Seattle area.
I’m super proud of the success She Codes Art has had in re-shaping the perspectives of several “art buffs” who were previously intimidated by tech and can’t wait to see how our organization continues to expand!
Fun Fact: I love experimenting with baking (often dubious) vegan creations and making bad science puns.
What # would define your life journey?
Favorite website / app:
It’s a tie between Github and Spotify–coding and music/art are my main passions!
Someone who inspires you and knowledge they have imparted:
Asta Roseway is a principal design researcher at Microsoft research who explores the intersection of art, technology, and science. Her success as a “fusionist” inspired me to realize that my passion for medicine, art, and tech don’t have to exist in independent spheres but rather can co-exist harmoniously. This approach has shaped me to become a “human-centered”, instead of a “tech-centered”, creator.
Challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it:
My dreams of becoming a pediatrician were first sparked at the age of five after a visit to the doctor’s office. One lollipop and five stickers later they were solidified–nothing was going to stop me from becoming a doctor. Naturally, as I grew older I began to identify myself with abilities and traits characteristic of doctors– I was after all, much more of a “biology nerd” rather than a “math geek.”
Perhaps the only reason I even ventured into the world of CS was because in the summer after eighth grade I enrolled in a computational biology summer course: “biology” in the course name drew me to it. Within an hour of the first class, I was hooked. It amazed me how a language that I was much more comfortable and familiar with–DNA, proteins, RNA–could so effortlessly be translated into Python algorithms. For me this was really a moment of realization: by combining computer science and biology we have the power to discover what we could not have with either alone. CS, I discovered isn’t just about staring at a computer screen and relentlessly debugging code but rather, learning to analyze and approach problems in a completely different fashion.
And it was really then that CS reshaped my dreams. I didn’t want to be the doctor, I wanted to be the scientist. I wanted to be at the heart of cutting edge computational biology research that accelerates cures for diseases like cancer and autism–research that’s crucial for doctors to continue helping and having a meaningful impact on patients.
Since then, developing innovative CS+Bio solutions to challenges that are faced by scientists in the sphere of biomedical research has become one my foremost passions. For instance, in my freshman year I became fascinated by the possible applications of artificial and convolutional neural networks (CNNs) in medicine. Researching this field, I found there was a compelling need to develop automated tools to accurately diagnose melanoma. After months of research and experimentation, I successfully developed a CNN model using advanced neural network architectures to identify malignant lesions from dermascopic images which exceeds the performance of other existing automated tools.
This year, I synthesized my passions for machine learning and molecular biology and developed a semi-supervised machine learning algorithm that can predict new enhancer regions. Enhancers are short stretches of non-coding DNA sequences; mutations in them have been linked to diseases like cancer and autism so my algorithm can help to significantly accelerate scientific research.
It’s working on challenging projects like these that really allow me to be creative while also doing what I’ve wanted since the age of five: positively impacting the medical community. I’ve got to say– stumbling into the world of CS has been one of the most fortunate crossroads in my life so far.
I’m extremely passionate about harnessing the power of biology and CS to accelerate medical research. My dream would be to work at a biotech startup where I can develop sustainable and cutting edge medical solutions by applying my skills and expertise in CS and AI.
What knowledge would you impart to women in order for them to REIGN their lives?
As Kathryn Schultz says in her Ted Talk “On Being Wrong” one of the most important things to realize is that being wrong feels just like being right; just because someone thinks they are 100% right offers no guarantee. I think this is especially important to remain cognizant of in the workplace dynamics between men and women. Men who act more confident or appear more “in control” than yourself could be wrong for all you know. It’s up to YOU to not let them bring you down into their arbitrary world of “wrong” and “right” and stand up for yourself!