Nittany AI Advance Intern Highlight: Elena Choi

Meet Elena Choi, a third-year computer science major at Penn State, whose journey with Nittany AI Advance is a testament to the transformative power of the program. As a co-leader of Advance, Choi’s story is not just about academic growth but also about the invaluable experience of leading, collaborating, and innovating in the rapidly evolving tech landscape. Her involvement with the SmartOCR project demonstrates how students like her are pushing the boundaries of their education by applying cutting-edge AI technologies to real-world problems. In this interview, we get an intimate glimpse into Choi’s background, her motivations, the challenges she’s overcome, and the advice she has for students eager to embark on a similar path. Whether you’re a prospective Nittany AI Advance member or an established tech professional, Elena’s insights are sure to inspire and inform.

Could you tell me about yourself, your background, and what you study at Penn State? 

I’m currently a third-year student majoring in computer science, minoring in mathematics, and working as a co-leader within Nittany AI Advance. Before Nittany AI Advance, I was involved in projects like hackathons, focusing on front-end and back-end development. I’m also an active member of the Acapella Club and try to get involved with other clubs as much as I can.

Were you part of the Nittany AI Student Society before joining Advance? 

I was not in the student society. I joined the program after learning more about AI during a hackathon through Daren (Coudriet), who told me about it and convinced me to apply. We were doing heavy research to try to win the competition and AI got brought up during that, which in turn brought up Nittany AI Advance. After doing my own research and talking to Daren, I decided to apply.

Did anything surprise you during the application process for the Advance program? 

Yes, the application form had a variety of options to choose from, asking what you preferred to focus on. Next, they asked us to write about our background and also about what we prefer to do in the future. I appreciated and was most surprised that they considered both our background and our future aspirations, which is a great opportunity for students. Some students might not have multifaceted experiences so far. I didn’t have much experience with machine learning as I was just beginning my junior year and hadn’t taken classes on it yet. I indicated my interest in exploring machine learning and checked other areas I was interested in.

What team project are you working on within the Advance program? 

I’m involved in the SmartOCR project aimed at automating high school transcript processing for our client, Penn State Undergraduate Admissions.

Within SmartOCR, can you describe something that was particularly challenging or rewarding that you accomplished? 

When I joined the project, we were gearing up to put our project into production, which was really exciting. However, we decided to adopt different methodologies than what we had used previously. It was quite challenging because it meant we had to start from scratch, despite having a lot of existing code files. We tackled the challenge by collaborating intensively as a team. Five of us put our heads together to conduct thorough research on cutting-edge AI technologies, such as LLM and GPT-4 vision. Ultimately, we chose a GPT-4 vision as it offered better adaptability and integration for our project. We then presented this new direction to our clients, finding a middle ground that worked for everyone. That process went surprisingly well and was incredibly rewarding. Up until that point, I had mostly worked in team settings that were not directly connected to industry, so being in direct contact with the client and having those discussions was an incredible experience for me. It was challenging but very rewarding in the end.

You mentioned earlier that despite your computer science background, you weren’t very familiar with machine learning or artificial intelligence. How has being involved in this project helped you develop those skills? Have you learned new programming languages, methodologies, or machine learning concepts? 

Yes, definitely. We had an amazing team member who was very experienced with machine learning, and they shared interesting research that we could immediately utilize. We researched independently, had in-depth discussions, and shared our thoughts, which led to better decision-making. This whole process contributed to my growth from ground zero to where I am now. I’ve learned a lot technically, but I’ve also grown professionally, learning how to gain knowledge and be excited about it. If you don’t know about a topic, you can’t really get excited about it, right? But once you start researching, become interested, and put your passion into it, you become much more active and engaged. This approach applies to every member of our team, and it’s how we’ve made it to the production stage we’re at right now.

How did participating within SmartOCR enhance your teamwork skills and your leadership skills? 

When I first joined the team, I didn’t know anyone, and they didn’t know me. It was important for me to present who I was authentically. I didn’t try to be the coolest; I wanted to be honest and humble so that I could learn from them. They accepted me for who I am. During our meetings, we would start our meetings with a random fun question, which helped build intimacy and improve our collaboration.

Interacting and communicating more with my team members has definitely helped me improve my leadership skills. Even at times when I’m not feeling too confident about speaking up, I’ve learned to voice my thoughts and engage in discussions about my work and the team’s input. Regarding teamwork skills, I’ve focused on building better relationships within the team. I wanted to create an environment where we interact as friends rather than just colleagues because we’re all striving for the same goals. Fostering this sense of belonging within our team has been key to making us feel united and supportive of each other.

How has the Advance program facilitated professional networking opportunities? 

It really helped a lot. Being part of Nittany AI Advance allowed me to present myself with confidence to my professors and others outside of college. I can confidently say I’m a good representative of this program when talking to them and having in-depth conversations. For instance, when I discussed SmartOCR with a comp sci professor of mine, he was really impressed, which opened up a lot of other opportunities within the class.

Finally, what advice would you give to students who are considering joining Nittany AI Advance based on your experiences? 

I would say, stay curious about everything. Don’t just stick with what you know or only look at things from your current perspective. Instead, try to be more curious and take steps to explore new things, especially in this field. AI and cutting-edge technology are rapidly evolving, so it’s important not to stay confined to the classroom or limited to doing homework and assignments. For future students applying for this program, even though they may be very competent and surrounded by amazing people, it’s important to strive to be an actual developer. Be yourself and focus on personal growth every day. Aim to become a better version of yourself.

Stay Informed

The Alliance is hard at work with AI industry partners to bring cutting-edge programming to Penn State. Don’t miss your opportunity to get involved!

Share your contact information to stay up-to-date on all of the activities, challenges, and networking opportunities the Nittany AI Alliance will be offering in the coming months. You’ll be among the first to know about AI–related programming, giving you a chance to sign up early for events that may offer limited seating or enrollment capacity.

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from the Penn State Nittany AI Alliance. View our Privacy Policy.