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New Allen School major Alina Chandra intends to use computer science to reshape systems and improve peoples’ lives

Photo of Alina Chandra with trees behind her.

Our latest undergraduate student spotlight features Olympia, Washington native Alina Chandra, who joined the Allen School community this spring quarter. Chandra was a biochemistry major with a minor in global health, but decided her talents would be more impactful in computer science. She recently was named the 2019-2020 Freshman Presidential Medalist at the University of Washington in recognition of her high GPA, rigor of classes and number of honors courses. Chandra is also a student in the university’s Honors Program on the Interdisciplinary Honors track

Allen School: You started out with a major in biochemistry and a minor in global health, as you envisioned a career in medicine. How will the switch to computer science help you have an impact on issues you care about, like health care equality? And do you plan to stick with your global health minor?

Alina Chandra: I once asked my global health professor Stephan Gloyd how he decided that his career path — becoming a doctor and working in global health — was the best way for him to address systemic violence. He told me that the best way to have an impactful career in this area was to figure out what I enjoy doing and what I am good at, then find a way to use those skills to approach problems relating to global health/systemic violence. This advice from Dr. Gloyd is what made me decide to switch my major to computer science. There are many possible applications of CS in global health, but the ones that I am most interested in right now are data analysis, information sharing, and perhaps also technology development for low-resource settings based on community identified needs. I plan to keep my minor because I still want the educational background to understand global health problems. 

Allen School: In your Freshman Medalist profile, you said that the computer sciences courses you took helped you see how the field can reshape systems and improve people’s lives. Which courses inspired you to make the switch, and can you give us a few examples of what you meant by that? 

AC: Both my CSE142: Computer Programming I and CSE143: Computer Programming II,  classes, taught respectively by Stuart Reges and Kevin Lin, did a nice job of connecting CS concepts to broader applications through career panels and in-class examples. In 142, professor Reges talked about the history of computing, the development of different types of programming languages, and how those languages shaped the modern-day computers which now dictate much of our lives. 

CSE 143 showed me how powerful CS tools could be for shaping our understanding of the world. There was an assignment called the election simulator which was very fun on a purely conceptual, puzzle solving level, but was also really fascinating because it computed the minimum number of states required to win the presidential election for any given year, which has really interesting societal implications. Professor Lin also made a very intentional effort to teach us that computer science work had potential social justice applications and was not limited to the technology industry. 

Allen School: Is there a particular area (or areas) of computer science that you are interested in exploring in the future that will enable you to combine your passion for health care, problem solving and math?

AC: I’m new to the field of computer science, and there’s a lot of areas that I haven’t explored yet. Right now, I’m really interested in learning more about machine learning, data management, and artificial intelligence.

Allen School: How did you get involved in research at Seattle Children’s Pediatric Pain and Sleep Innovations Lab, and what has been your approach to investigating the progression of pain from acute to chronic? 

AC: One of the advisers at the Undergraduate Research Program recommended that I apply to the Scan Design Innovations in Pain Research internship, and through that program I discovered the field of chronic pain research. I was immediately intrigued, because I could relate some of the research to my own past experience as a pediatric patient. While working under the mentorship of Dr. Jennifer Rabbits, I am working on two projects. In the first one, I manage and analyze clinical data for a study looking at the ability of post-surgical in-hospital functional ability to predict acute pain and post-surgical outcomes. In the second, I design a systematic database search and currently review abstracts for a systematic review on chronic pain development after musculoskeletal traumatic injury. 

Allen School: What broader lessons have you taken away from that research experience, and do you plan to continue doing research in computer science now that you have changed majors? 

AC: This experience has taught me that it is possible to conduct research that both asks fundamental questions and also has direct real-world impact. I’ve also learned that I really enjoy data analysis, and I would like to continue doing it in the future. 

I am currently enjoying reading about the wealth of different types of research going on at the Allen School, and at some point, I hope to get an opportunity to do research in CS myself.

Allen School: In addition to research and your studies, you are also a writer for The Daily. How did you get involved in journalism, and what kinds of stories do you cover? 

AC: My interest in journalism was spurred by the pandemic. During quarantine I started reading a lot more books and newspapers, with a particular focus on scientific communication. In addition, with so much going on in the world and no casual peer-to-peer conversations to alert me of current events, I began to more heavily rely on journalism for information. Scientific communicators Ed Yong and Allie Ward are a few of the writers who inspired me to try my hand at journalism. I mainly write for the news and science section at The Daily, and I particularly like writing articles about the wide variety of research going on at UW. 

Allen School: In addition to your work with The Daily, you are editor of Voyage UW. What inspired you to focus on travel writing, and what is your favorite destination? 

AC: When I came to UW, I knew that I wanted to get more experience with writing. Although I am wary of the historically Eurocentric and neocolonial tendencies of travel writing, I really like Voyage because our goal is to not look at travel from a one-dimensional rose-tinted lens, but rather to share stories from diverse individuals that help to foster cross-cultural understanding and appreciation. I also joined Voyage because it is an incredibly talented team of designers, photographers and writers, and I have learned a lot from my teammates over two years. My favorite destination is probably the Olympic mountain range here in Washington state.

Allen School: Between your classes, your research, and your extracurricular activities, how do you stay organized and keep up with everything?

AC: I have a very committed relationship with my planner. 

Allen School: What are you looking forward to most as an Allen School student? 

AC: I’m really looking forward to getting involved in the Allen School community! 

Allen School: Outside of your studies, who or what inspires you?

AC: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. I do not aspire to be any of these great leaders, but I aspire to learn from their teachings about how to interact with our world in a way that makes it a better place.

Welcome to the Allen School, Alina! We are happy you joined our community!