When Justin Zhao, SEAS ’15, was invited to play cello at a School of Engineering and Applied Science recruiters’ reception last spring, he thought it was just another gig with String Theory, the cello ensemble he co-founded in 2011.
What he ended up with was a summer internship at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“I was involved in music,” Zhao said, “and Columbia Engineering likes to be about the engineer who’s also involved with humanities and stuff.”
A NASA recruiter who’d been in the audience was impressed with Zhao’s performance and speech about the school, and emailed him later to invite him to apply to the space agency’s Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars program in Virginia. He was accepted.
Zhao, a computer science major, joined 200 other interns from universities all over the East Coast. He and two other LARSS interns assisted NASA’s information technology group during the summer.
Zhao’s team worked with IBM Watson—the computer that beat top human contestants on the game show “Jeopardy!”—to help scientists deal with large quantities of information.
“They were working with a platform for better research where researchers could ask a question verbally and the computer could return relevant results,” Zhao said. “My responsibility was to implement design and develop this system.”
One of the mentors overseeing the team’s big data project was Ed McLarney, NASA’s chief technology officer. In an email, McLarney lauded Zhao’s software development and design work.
“Justin provided especially excellent insights into modular software development techniques, ensuring the code not only works today, but is also prepared for future expansion,” McLarney said. “Justin helped lay the groundwork for using big data techniques to enable NASA to pursue new horizons in research, science, and engineering.”
Zhao, whose previous internships have included lab work in quantum photonics and computational epidemiology, said he was glad to have had the opportunity to program at NASA this summer and was fascinated to see public-sector research firsthand.
“I also was really happy that I was exposed to the government side of science and technology,” he said—“the hierarchy and the diplomacy and the bureaucracy and seeing how the whole system works.”
The summer program also provided Zhao with opportunities to show off his other interests besides programming. Zhao, who has played cello for 10 years, joined up with some fellow interns to perform at the LARSS talent show. He won first and second places with an ensemble and a solo act, respectively.
While pleased with his NASA experience this summer, Zhao said he still wants to explore other areas of computer science, especially entrepreneurship. He said he was attracted to the computer science department because of “all the different startups, and the big computer science culture here, hackathons and things.”
In his free time—when he has free time—Zhao enjoys coding, as well as arranging music for String Theory. He is also on the executive board of Application Development Initiative, a student-run group that cultivates interest in technology and project development by organizing workshops and tech talks.
Zhao eventually foresees himself starting his own company. He doesn’t know how he will get there, but he knows the same impulse that drove him to computer science is pushing him to be an entrepreneur.
“I really like creating things—you know, that affect people,” he said. “I really like being able to call it my own, something that I created.”