Student Highlight: Savitha Srinivasan at Superposition

Posted Apr 1, 2020 by Savitha Srinivasan, edited by Mingjie Jiang

Hi! I’m Savitha Srinivasan, a high school senior from Seattle, Washington. I am a computer scientist, biologist, artist, and above all, STEAM-inist. As a woman and minority in STEM, I initially never thought I would be interested in Computer Science; I always considered myself more of an “art-sy” person being an avid dancer and musician. I found biology intriguing for the same reasons I loved art; it was a very visual science, and I loved being able to see life, at the micro & macroscopic levels. However, before entering high school, I stumbled into a week-long summer course on computational biology and decided to try it out. It was then that I realized the power of computer science; it was a tool through which I could implement algorithms that were biologically, extremely relevant. From there, I didn’t stop. I went on to self-learn machine learning techniques and apply them to research biological problems I was interested in.

Throughout high school, I’ve conducted research both independently and at labs. Some of my favorite research projects include: 1) developing software to recommend patient-specific cancer vaccines with Spotify’s ANNOY library (songs are more similar to proteins than you may realize!) and 2) accelerating fundamental cancer research with ML models at the DFCI/Harvard Medical School this summer!

I’m also very passionate about increasing diversity in STEM and combating the notion that CS is just for traditionally represented demographics. In 2017 I founded She Codes Art, a non-profit initiative in which we’ve created a unique art + tech curriculum on fundamental CS concepts; using that curriculum, we conduct educational outreach sessions at local organizations in Seattle that serve underrepresented minorities. In this way, I aspire to break barriers and get more girls involved in Computer Science.

However, despite being so involved with CS research and outreach throughout high school, I never had the chance to participate in a hackathon. While the Seattle area is definitely a hub of technological innovation, we surprisingly only have at most one or two hackathon opportunities per year–one of which is geared only towards college students. For me, the thought of walking in, finding a team, and creating a working product within 24 hours was daunting–all of my research projects had been the culmination of months of individual careful experimentation and coding.

But, when I stumbled upon Superposition in a women-in-tech Facebook community, I was instantly enticed. Here was an event bringing together female/non-binary identifying software developers of all skill levels from both high school and college. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to dip my toes into the elusive “hackathon culture” that so many of my fellow techies raved about.

On February 28th, I flew to San Jose from Seattle and the next morning, I met up with one of my team members, Cynthia, who I met at RSI, a summer research program. We arrived at the Uber Headquarters in San Francisco, got a professional name badge (fancy security!), and were led up to the main event floor by Uber employees. The moment we entered we were blown away. The cafeteria had been transformed into a cozy maker space, conference rooms into professional workshop spaces (and later temporary sleeping bag pads–Hogwarts Great Hall style) and there were tables piled with amazing swag and delicious food. The most thrilling and (pleasantly) surprising thing for me, however, was the sheer number of girls–this was easily the most number of women I’d ever seen gathered together for a STEM event.

We checked in, picked up an awesome Superposition bag with some super cool swag, like beanies, stickers, & Uber hand sanitizer (now, an invaluable commodity), and met up with our other two team members, Stephanie and Karen.

The event began with an inspiring keynote on Imposter Syndrome by Kate Edwards, Executive Director of the Global Game Jam, and CEO of Geogrify LLC. She talked about her journey with game development, shared her experiences globetrotting, and emphasized the importance of discovering and embracing your inner superpowers.

After the keynote talk, we dived right into our project. Being passionate about fashion and preserving our environment, we agreed that we wanted to tackle sustainable fashion. We conducted extensive research on the environmental impact of the fast fashion industry. In particular, we were stunned at the amount of water waste fast fashion generates–just one cotton shirt uses 2700 liters of water, which is a person’s drinking water for 2.5 years. This was just the tip of the iceberg of appalling statistics that we found. And as much as we love buying cute dresses and jeans at affordable prices from fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Forever 21, we knew we wanted to develop a technological tool that could help consumers just like us make water-friendly choices when shopping.

From there, we brainstormed several questions that fell into three main categories: research, design/prototyping, and software development. For instance, how would we measure and quantify the water footprint of each clothing article? How much input would the consumer have to provide regarding the clothing item for us to make a recommendation? Did we want to account for online and in-person shopping? What type of app did we want to build–web, desktop, or iOS?

After speaking to several mentors, we decided to develop fashiØn, a desktop app for online shoppers that will help them to quickly and efficiently track the water footprint of items they’re considering purchasing. Cynthia and I being first-time hackers, lead the research efforts to find the water footprints for different materials, and develop an accurate mathematical formula that could provide the water footprint in gallons/lb based on the percentage composition of materials in a clothing item. We also developed the logo and worked on our product pitch.

Karen and Stephanie, who were more experienced hackers, began working on the front-end development–we decided to use Electron, a framework for native app development. We also decided to minimize user input fields to increase the ease of usability. Thus, we decided to explore web scraping so that we could extract data on materials in a garment from the retail website, calculate water footprint based on material percentages, and then finally display how environmentally friendly the garment is. The only information that the user would have to input would be the type of clothing item, and the link to the clothing item. At around 7 PM we took a break for dinner and attended the Women in Tech panel. I loved the diversity of interest among the speakers–an expert at fashion design, an educator who taught students computer science in impoverished countries, and a college student at Cornell who had her own 3D printing fashion startup! Their advice and experiences opened my eyes to the versatility and multitude of careers within STEM–there’s so much more to computer science than simply coding behind a computer screen all day.

After the panel, armed with our delicious late-night boba (I got Thai Tea!), all four of us jumped right back into the coding–there was a lot to accomplish and not much time left. Stephanie, Cynthia, and I experimented with different libraries until we were able to successfully implement web scraping in Python to get the material percentages for clothing on H&M (our use case for demo purposes). Our web scraping conclusion? Beautiful Soup is not that beautiful.

We also implemented our mathematical formula in JavaScript, while Karen tackled the challenge of sending data between the multiple languages we were using–HTML, CSS, Java, and Python. Our collaborative and supportive spirit, efficient division of work, and passion for our cause helped us pull through–especially when we began yawning, amidst our instant Ramen and highly fashionable face masks, at around 2:45 AM.

Though our demo wasn’t completely finished and working, we finally went to bed at 5 AM, finding refuge in a secluded corner behind a salad bar in the (now more quiet) cafeteria. The next morning we woke up at 7 AM, and after some furious coding and more than a couple heartstopping moments we submitted our project to Devpost by the 8 AM deadline.

My favorite part of the hackathon, next to working with my incredible team and learning so many new technologies, was definitely pitching our app to the panel of judges. We shared our love for sustainable fashion with them, and demoed how our desktop app took URLs to clothing items on H&M and showed the user their water footprint, enabling them to make a more sustainable purchase. We also shared some of our challenges: finding standardized data for the fashion industry’s water waste, sending data between the multiple languages, and implementing web scraping (a new skill for all of us!). Our judges gave us great feedback on how we could extend the functionality and impact of our app–for instance, reaching out to clothing brands that are seeking to improve their sustainability and requesting data from them.

At the closing ceremony, we won an honorable mention in the Best Intermediate Hack category. We were incredibly surprised and thrilled when we found out that we had the 7th highest score out of all 500+ attendees and 150+ submissions!

Over, this weekend was definitely one for the books: I met such inspiring role models in tech, worked with amazingly talented hackers (shoutout to my teammates, Karen, Stephanie & Cynthia!), learned so much about app development and the industry-oriented tech innovation that’s possible outside of research, stepped out of my comfort zone multiple times, and observed the importance of thinking artistically and creatively even when developing “technical” software. Superposition was everything I could have wanted from a first hackathon: inclusive, spontaneous, diverse, and above all, fun! I’m incredibly grateful to Execute Big for supporting my hackathon experience by funding a part of my travel from Seattle to San Francisco. One of the team members, Mingjie, was there to help at every step of the journey–he provided some awesome tips, resources, and guidance that made me much more comfortable and confident about my first hacking adventure; I definitely plan to encourage other girls in my community to apply for this program. Here’s to many more adventures! :)