AI For All – Data-Driven Summer Program Energizes A New Generation

AI4ALL Graduates and Mentors Group Shot
Graduates of the program and their mentors pose after the conclusion of UCSF AI4ALL. Program lead Marina Sirota pictured second from right.

By Sarah Paris

On a recent day at the UCSF Mission Bay campus, in front of a packed auditorium, four teams of young investigators presented their projects related to artificial intelligence (AI) in biomedicine. The sophistication of the studies and the professionalism and passion with which they were conveyed was remarkable, because these budding scientists were high school students who, until three weeks earlier, had had little or no exposure to AI. In fact, many had no programming experience. Yet here they were presenting work on video processing and machine learning using zebra fish to determine drug receptors and clustering methods to zero in on promising new cancer therapies.

These high school students, all young women, had been taking part in the first cohort of UCSF AI4ALL, a program to promote greater diversity and inclusion in the field of Artificial Intelligence with a focus on applications to biomedicine.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rapidly changing the world, impacting all disciplines and industries. But the lack of diversity in the AI community can foster biases for certain demographics, needs, and values. Bringing more diversity into the pipeline of AI researchers is the goal of AI4ALL, a nonprofit that was conceived at Stanford in 2015 and has since expanded to eleven universities and an online program. 

This summer, UCSF started its first AI4ALL program, with a particular focus on biomedical applications. The course was conceived and led by Marina Sirota, PhD, an assistant professor of Pediatrics affiliated with the Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute.  Sirota had served as a guest lecturer at the Stanford AI4ALL program and subsequently admitted graduates as interns in her lab. “It was amazing to see what high school students can do and how quickly they learn,” she said. The experience inspired her to start an AI4ALL program at UCSF.

Working On The Edge Of What Is Known

Because of UCSF’s unique position as a campus focused on health, Sirota created a program around the application of AI to biomedicine. She wanted to give the students a taste of what she felt was the essential experience of research: exploring data without a preconceived answer or “working on the edge of what is known.”

Sirota was able to obtain funding for the program from AI4ALL, including significant support from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. She recruited an extended team of instructors, mentors, coordinators, and guest lecturers to create a program that would be stimulating and form a basis for further exploration. In addition to broad exposure to artificial intelligence topics through faculty lectures and field trips, the students gained in-depth experience working on their own research projects.

high school students visiting laboratory
AI4ALL Students visiting the Altschuler & Wu Lab: (front) Jillian Burchard (on-site coordinator), Dana Li, Tanya Chettri, Jessica Cabrera, (second row) Eunice Leung, Erica Lee, Arohee Bhoja, Mana Vale, Izzy Rivera, Meghana Yarlagadda, (third row) Hazel Drake, Christine Li, Angelina Kueppers.

An Eye-Opening Experience

For many students, the experience was an eye-opener. “Previously, I had only thought of AI in terms of machine-made art, AI board game players, and Tesla. I now realize there is so much more to explore,” said Chloe Jeon, a student at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton.

“The best part of the program was getting to meet so many amazing people and being exposed to cutting-edge research at the intersection of AI and biomedicine—whether it is through the guest speakers, panel discussions, or our field trip to the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub. It was truly an eye-opening experience for me!” said Christine (Tinghui) Li, who is studying at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China.

Guest speakers included UCSF faculty as well a graduate students, AI4ALL alumni, and industry leaders. The mentoring and career and personal development sessions were a vital part of the program to expose the young women to role models, resources, and ways to think about their future. 

“I did not expect the wonderful guest lectures and the incredible resources AI4ALL has provided me,” said Dana Li, a student at Fremont High in Sunnyvale “And I loved getting to work with AI hands-on during the project.”

The schedule was intense, with packed seven-hour days every day for three weeks, but Sirota was gratified to see that the students remained engaged throughout. “They kept their focus. I didn’t see any of them get distracted, and they asked incredible questions. It was very rewarding to see that happen.”

Tanya Chettri, a student at the American High School in Fremont, thought the program was going to be like a coding class, and her expectations too were exceeded. “Not only did we learn how to code, but we were also able to experience how scientists use AI to analyze data. The research project taught me useful skills that would help me be an intern in a research lab. After the program, I started thinking about AI's everyday applications and how many things would work better with the help of AI.”

The students now join the AI4All alumni community as "changemakers in AI," providing them with a pathway to develop their future careers through internships and mentoring.

Fittingly enough, the renowned AI scientist and leader in the field of computational biology, Daphne Koller, PhD, gave the keynote speech at the final symposium where the students presented their research. A recording of her address and of the students’ presentations is available.

“Daphne is a true role model as a researcher, scientist and a leader in the field of AI. Having taken my first artificial intelligence course from her a number of years ago, it truly meant a lot to hear her speaking to the students at the symposium, sharing her knowledge and inspiring the next generation of scientists,” said Sirota.  

UCSF AI4ALL Students

Arohee Bhoja, Jessica Cabrera, Tanya Chettri, 
Hazel Drake, Chloe Jeon, Isha Karim, 
Tanvi Khot, Angelina Kueppers, Erica Lee, 
Eunice Leung, Christine Li, Dana Li, 
Sachi Parikh, Shreya Ravikumar, Izzy Rivera,
Mana Vale, Madeline Shenkan, Meghana Yarlagadda