Jessica is currently working on her PhD at MIT, with a focus in AI (Artificial Intelligence). Growing up, she always had a passion for engineering and science, but felt discouraged as one of the few girls in her classes. Since then, it’s been her mission to encourage young people to follow their interests and passions, and break the social biases that tend to come with them.
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Christy: So, Jessica can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Jessica: Definitely yeah so my name is Jessica Van Brummellen. Right now I am a PhD student at MIT, which basically means I've been in school for a very long time.
I guess I'll start from high school: So I had a lot of different interests. I liked -- I really, really liked -- science and math. When I was in grade 10, I heard about this drafting course at my school. Drafting is kind of like engineering -- you get to design different projects. You get to do woodworking and that sort of thing. So, I signed up for this course in grade 10. I was really, really excited about it all summer long. When I got to grade 11, I showed up for the class I realized that there was only one other female student in the room. I got really discouraged and I just felt like I didn't belong so I ended up dropping the course, which was really unfortunate because it could have really helped me in my undergraduate degree, which is the degree I took after high school. So, if there's anything that I can do to encourage people not to be afraid to do things that maybe aren't standard, or maybe you're a little bit afraid about doing, definitely want to encourage people to do that. Follow your passions. And if you're interested in something, don't be afraid to do that.
My older sister was doing sciences, so I actually went into a science degree after high school and I was going to become a doctor, but honestly I was a little queasy thinking about injuries. I ended up taking this one course in my undergrad called Engineering Drawing Tag Camp. It was very similar to this drafting course that I would have taken in high school. I ended up, after a long thought process, switching into Engineering and doing a Mechanical Engineering degree.
I ended up going to graduate school and switching into computer science, because I also really, really liked coding and I was doing some self-driving car research for my undergrad. So, then I did my masters. I learned about lots of AI, lots of machine-learning. And then I made some conversational interfaces in App Inventor.
What I'm doing now is my PhD. Specifically, I'm working on creating a conversational agent that you can talk to you.
Christy: Could you talk a little bit more about how you first got into coding? It sounded like you weren't really exposed to it until college. What did that process look like for you?
Jessica: This is actually a funny story -- so I didn't know what coding was until after high school -- and I was watching this really old movie with my friends, it's called The Matrix. I saw that the main character was a programmer. So, he was typing on this computer and making the computer. Two things I thought that was really cool, and I had no idea what that was, and I was like okay, I should look this up and figure out how it works. So, I ended up just Googling it and finding an online course and taking a course about how to program and really, really enjoying it. I didn't immediately go into a computer science degree, like I said before, but it was something that I was really interested in.
Christy: Can you talk a little bit more about what products you have created? What does the process look like for you, and what inspires you to create these different products?
Jessica: Definitely. So, I'm not specifically doing product development, but I'm doing research, so I get to create different things and I can actually share my screen.
Something I developed is called ‘Early Warning System for Cyclists.’ Basically, we put a bunch of sensors on the back of a bicycle to warn the cyclist about things that were behind them. They're called ultrasonic sensors, which use sound to get distance data. Then, I combined all of that data, all of that information that was coming from the sensors, to figure out how dangerous it was to the cyclist. I also put little motors and this in the handlebars. So basically, if there was a car that was coming up really dangerously close and fast behind the bicycle, then we would mode or vibrate the motors and tell the the cyclists which direction to go based on the vibrations.
I can also talk about my Master's research. After I finished my undergrad in Canada, I [got] my masters at MIT. [The program] I was working on is just like Scratch -- it's a parameter you can use to create your own mobile phone apps. What I did was modify this so that you can actually program Amazon Alexa and use the machine-learning algorithms, or the AI, that's involved with Alexa and to program what you want her to do.
I actually got to bring it into a classroom and students actually got to create their own Alexa skills. Slowly we're gonna bring it out to people and start beta testing with lots of different people.
Christy: Why do you think it is important for students to start learning AI and coding at a younger age?
Jessica: I think it's super important. One of the reasons is because it's out there right now. You have all these home devices sitting in your home, and there's Siri that you can use, and there's all these machine-learning algorithms on social media. So, that could be your Facebook feed or on YouTube, deciding which videos to show you. There's also a lot of biases with these algorithms.
Christy: What do you think is a good starting tool to create an AI?
Jessica: I think for me, what really motivates me is finding a question that I'm interested in, doing something really creative or different or new. And then, going from either someone else's code, or looking online for tutorials, and figuring out how to make that. I think doing a tutorial -- there's tons of resources online that you can you can find. First doing a simpler tutorial, and then thinking of something I'm really interested in and building that, because if I'm not interested in it I probably won't finish the project.
Christy: What do you think are some ways to help younger students learn AI?
Jessica: When I did the workshops with the Alexa skills for my masters, first we would [have] me teaching the very basics. I think one of the first things we did was have tutorials that were hopefully easy to follow, and then they can create and feel success by implementing these things that have already been done. Then, they can remix and change those however they want once they're finished. As our final project, we had them create something that they were interested in. We call this project-based learning. I think it can be really, really useful once people have the basic skills to let them explore and address problems.
Students: We want to ask Jessica if there's one key takeaway that you would want to leave with students for their future, what would it be?
Jessica: There's a couple different things. I know when I was young, when I was in elementary school and middle school, it was really hard for me especially because I just felt different. I wasn't interested in what most girls were interested in. I loved building things and creating new things and girls thought I was weird. So it was tough for me back in the day. But I think, as you grow up, things do get better and things change. Everything is subject to change and I really hope that all of you keep hoping and finding things that you're interested in. Just keep going, and also, if you have questions for me, feel free to reach out. Thanks so much for joining, it's been great talking with you all.
Watch Jessica’s full interview, here!