Last weekend, the Harker Research Symposium welcomed attendees to the upper school campus for the first time since 2019. This annual celebration of the sciences, organized by the students of Women in STEM, invites the Harker community to view presentations and hear talks by Harker students and experts in a variety of fields, as well as get a glance at the exciting innovations on the horizon.
In her morning welcome address, science department chair and symposium founder Anita Chetty remarked that more than 60 poster presentations were being given by Harker middle and upper school students, a new record for the event. Attendees spent much of the day perusing the spaces in the athletic center and Rothschild Performing Arts Center where the presentations were being hosted.
The theme of this year’s symposium, “STEM Will Save Us,” dealt with the many ways that STEM disciplines are responding to current and upcoming challenges. Kamini Varma, VP of genetic testing solutions R&D at Thermo Fisher, was the first morning keynote speaker. Her talk, titled “The COVID-19 Diaries,” covered her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic working in molecular diagnostics. It was a project that began not long after shelter-in-place orders were enacted, which Varma described as feeling like a diary or book. “I started to put together the COVID-19 diaries actually in April of 2020, when I was asked to present a talk, she said. “I had no clue that two years later, we would still be adding new chapters.”
Artificial intelligence was a major topic at this symposium, with Helm.ai demonstrating its self-driving software outside Nichols Hall for much of the day, while Harker’s AI Club gave a presentation on ethical and unethical uses of AI in the present and beyond. Also discussing this topic was the second morning keynote speaker, Yanbing Li, senior VP of engineering at Aurora, developers of the Aurora Driver self-driving system that has vehicles in testing in the Bay Area, Pittsburgh and Dallas. “Self-driving technology has been the pursuit of our generation,” she said. “It always feels so close, but it also feels still far away.” Li’s presentation covered the ways Aurora’s technology is addressing safety concerns while also bringing self-driving technology closer to being a fully realized commercial product.
At a special alumni panel, Steven Botte ‘82, Ashley Morishige ‘07 (via Zoom), Amy Rorabaugh ‘10, Simar Bajaj ‘20, Daniza Rodriguez ‘13, Jasmine Wiese ‘20 and Allison Sommers ’21 covered important topics in diversity, equity and inclusion, including changes that must be made in corporate culture to increase diversity, how the Harker community helped and supported them in affirming their identities and what improvements the community can make for a more equitable environment. Each of the panelists were given the opportunity to talk at length about their unique experiences and how to approach conversations about race, sexuality and gender identity.
Senan Ebrahim ’08 and Hassaan Ebrahim ’11, this year’s alumni keynote speakers, gave a presentation on their journey to co-founding Hikma Health, a nonprofit that provides free health data systems to organizations providing health care to refugees. Their path included partnerships with groups around the world and engaging with their network to find people who could help build the technology. The primary goal of Hikma Health is to provide readily accessible and up-to-date information to clinicians so that they can offer refugees “the kind of personalized care that they truly deserve as compared to what we had been observing routinely on the ground,” Senan said.
Throughout the day, guests visited the exhibitor area where companies including Google, Nvidia and Microsoft demonstrated some of their products. They also made their way to the Nichols Hall rotunda, where several stations of fun activities were set up for the younger science enthusiasts in attendance.
The first afternoon keynote speaker was Hari Mix, assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences at Santa Clara University and an experienced climber with a total of five months on Mt. Everest. Mix surveyed the various environmental, social and economic changes that have been brought to the area around Mt. Everest, as well as possible solutions to the problems posed by human waste and climate change, including those that have affected the people indigenous to the area of Nepal where the mountain stands. Mix, whose current goal is to reach the summit of Mt. Everest without the assistance of supplemental oxygen, advised the students in the audience to learn to appreciate the journey. “My lesson for The Harker School students today is to really focus on the process more than the achievement or the outcome,” he said.
Speaking last for the day was Upendra Mardikar, chief security officer at Snap Finance, who advised guests on how to be “Cyber Smart,” summarizing the different types of security risks presented by the growing presence of smart devices in our daily lives. These include threats from online predators, cyberbullying and the acquisition and sale of personal information. He also discussed some proper and improper ways to respond to these risks. Despite the many threats people should be cognizant of, Mardikar advised caution, not panic. “The idea is not to scare you,” he said. “Don’t be scared, just be careful.”