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Compute to CompetE

Senior utilizes programming skills to win Intel competition 

 Five years ago, if you asked senior Charles Liu what he wanted to be, “mathematician” would have been the answer, and to no surprise. An avid member of the Math Counts club, Liu was participating in all the major middle school competitions, even making it all the way to state championships in the Math Counts Competition two years in a row.

Yet, five years later, it is not contributions to math that the senior is winning major awards for. Instead, it’s for his work in the field of biology using his computer expertise. Now, at the end of his high school career, Liu has been named a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search—an honor only 50 students are graced with each year. This January, judges awarded Liu for his discovery of common genes between lupus and scleroderma patients, a finding which happens to be the culmination of nearly two years of research at Stanford University.

Liu made the jump from competition math to science research at the end of middle school after his parents took him to a school science fair. At the fair, he became intrigued by the idea of using knowledge for a larger purpose. “At the time, [science] wasn’t something I was interested in. I was just interested in pure theoretical math,” Liu said. “Seeing the projects there made me realize that this is actually something that’s really interesting. These people are using their knowledge of math and science to accomplish beyond what’s regularly done in school.”

During his sophomore year, Liu pursued an opportunity to experience official research in Dr. Purvesh Khatri’s lab at the Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection. There, Liu was introduced to the new field of computational biology, which mixes elements of programming and computer science with biology. As part of his research in the field, Liu would write computer scripts and then run them against genomic data from different studies on patients with autoimmune diseases. His code would measure changes in gene expression and highlight genetic differences or patterns among patients, healthy and sick. Afterwards, Liu would further analyze the data using statistical methods such as significance testing to make findings.

According to Liu, Khatri supported him throughout his research by guiding Liu through the biological aspect of his work. Khatri would help Liu understand what his scripts should look for and which genes are significant. The senior would then write his scripts, run them and evaluate the biological importance of  the results with Khatri by his side. “My mentor’s been very helpful,” Liu said. “He has played a very big role  for me in the past two years.”

Through this process, Liu was able to discover the common denominator of patients with lupus and scleroderma, all without ever leaving his cubicle. “One of the things my mentor likes to say is that anyone could do this,” Liu said. “This is a project that even a couch potato could do, but it’s still obviously very impactful, and it’s great because you don’t have to spend money on all that equipment.”

Since joining Khatri’s lab two years ago, the senior has logged over 300 hours and has come a long way from being “just interested in theoretical math.” According to Liu, his research experience has transformed his outlook on the purpose of learning. “I’ve gained more perspective from doing research in terms of education,” he said. “Now I think that learning knowledge to try to apply it for a purpose is more motivating and more rewarding than just learning it in a class.”

In addition, Liu credits two memorable Gunn classes with contributing to his research experience, AP Statistics and AP Computer Science. In AP Statistics, Liu learned many statistical tests and analysis techniques that later became important concepts of his research.

In AP Computer Science, he not only expanded his programming skills but also experimented with applying computer science for practical purposes. “In AP Computer Science, there’s so much freedom to build whatever program you want,” Liu said. “The main focus of that class is building whatever system that you’re motivated to build.”

After graduating this year, Liu is not sure exactly what he will pursue as a career in the future. However, he is certain that computer science will remain in the picture. “Computer science is definitely what I find most interesting just because of that ability to build programs,” he said. “All you have to do is write these lines of code, and you can make these really interesting programs that solve any problem you want.”


Hackathon challenges students to design original applications

 From the morning of March 8 to the evening of March 9, Paypal’s headquarters in San Jose will be filled with high-schoolers giving “hacking” a new name. The action is commonly associated with troublemakers programming viruses, but Bay Area students from Palo Alto to San Ramon plan on innovating and coding in one of the Bay Area’s largest high school hackathons.

Student-organized HSHacks, founded by Monta Vista’s Shrav Mehta, will feature more than 70 schools that contribute about 900 students in all. According to HSHacks Gunn advocate senior Angie Wang, roughly 10 Gunn students are currently enrolled.

Programmers of all skill levels are faced with the challenge of creating an application using computer languages, design and collaboration, and often come up with remarkable feats of computer science; freshman Ankit Ranjan created an application in which a user takes a picture of a hand-drawn mock up and the application automatically turns it into a website. This was just one of many of Gunn’s students individual achievements.

According to Wang, the large attendance and impressive results reflect positive growth among the academic environment. “It shows that people in the Bay Area want to learn to code and that the community around hackathons is growing quite rapidly with high-schoolers,” she said.

During the event, students work together in teams of up to four people to build applications for the web, mobile stores, Pebble, Google Glass and other wearables to eventually pitch them to judges. Award ceremonies also take place in order to encourage hackers to make use of the many developing tools that the sponsors have to offer.

Wang believes the social and competitive atmospheres of hackathons inspires students who have never had the power to construct their ideas to acquire insight and information through communication. “It is meant to provide an incredible learning and programming experience where students are given time to work with other students to build amazing projects,” she said.

HSHacks is tailored to help jump-start newcomers in the field of computer science, not only with on-site professional assistants, but with opportunities to cooperate with peers from other schools. “The purpose of HSHacks is to spread the joys of computer science to everyone that we can,” she said. “We want to encourage beginners and develop experience by providing a close-knit community for computer science students to learn and grow together.”

Sponsored by over 20 different technology companies including Facebook Inc., eBay Inc. and Microsoft Corporation, HSHacks provides programmers with three meals, snacks and caffeinated drinks. Wang believes the combination of energy inducers and passionate student-innovators results in an enthusiastic atmosphere. “It gets pretty hectic and loud at times,” she said. “But it’s the adrenaline that gets us pumped to both produce our best work and also have fun.” Regarding Gunn’s goals as a team, Wang hopes students get a positive attitude toward computer science. “I also want to see some great hacks built, happy faces  and batches of high-schoolers going to every hackathon,” she said.

Wang and senior Amy Shen attended a hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania called PennApps from Feb. 14 to Feb. 16, where they built an app called Moosic that detects a user’s mood based on their social media updates and generates a playlist of songs to match one’s mood.

Another hackathon at PayPal headquarters last summer allowed Wang, freshman Maggie Wang and freshman Andrew Shen to create a game called Educrest which teaches students to learn computer science skills. “It’s empowering to have the access to software tools that can directly affect so many human lives,” Wang said.

Wang hopes that hackathons will inspire other students to further their interest in computer science and become more motivated by the collaborative unity and incessant energy of the international, software community.



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