ASU graduate focuses on intersection of culture, community health

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Arizona native Kyle Polen came to Arizona State University as a Flinn Scholar. Four years later, Polen is graduating this spring with dual degrees, a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences and a Bachelor of Arts in global health from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.  Kyle Polen Kyle Polen Download Full Image

Polen is also a student at Barrett, The Honors College, and has been accepted to 13 medical schools. He said his passion for science and medicine started at Chaparral High School and grew while attending ASU. 

Polen wants to pursue a career as a physician with a global presence focusing on the science and humanistic aspects of medicine. His interest in global health was ignited by his experiences in Sister Cities exchange programs. 

“These experiences really helped me develop a sense of cultural humility and with ASU’s global health program, I knew it would give me a strong foundation to continue studying the intersection of culture and community health,” Polen said. “Global health was a great choice because it supplemented my traditional pre-medical coursework to provide a more holistic understanding of the health-care landscape. 

“The sciences gave me a microscopic understanding of disease, but global health gave me an understanding of the macroscopic factors that contribute to social determinants of health.”

Polen received the Distinguished Merit Award from the School of Molecular Sciences. The award is presented to a graduating senior in recognition of an outstanding academic record in a biochemistry degree. 

Polen talked with ASU News about his college experiences. 

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the fields you majored in?

Answer: My first opportunity to volunteer in a hospital in high school was really what opened my eyes to the ways in which science and culture intersect. It introduced me to a diverse patient population and got me thinking about how I could apply the biochemistry I wanted to study to help the patients I was seeing. Ever since, majoring in global health and biochemistry has benefited me in a variety of clinical settings and helped me understand scientific research through a new lens.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I’ve learned so much at ASU, so it is hard for me to pick just one thing. But what stands out to me is the importance of collaboration with people of different backgrounds. Group projects in Professor Daniel Hruschka’s medical anthropology course and small honors classes really got me excited about the future possibilities of working in teams, which I think is an excellent skill regardless of the field in which you work.

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: I chose ASU for the perfect combination of a large public research institution paired with the community of a smaller honors college. To me, this felt like a great balance because I was able to pursue a variety of opportunities without feeling overwhelmed in person. ASU does a great job of making a large university feel like a tight-knit community, and paired with my selection as a Flinn Scholar, staying in-state and attending ASU was a great choice.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I have endless gratitude for all of my professors, but I’m especially grateful for retired Dean Mark Jacobs from Barrett, The Honors College. He was a great mentor to me outside of the traditional classroom who showed me the importance of keeping an open mind on one’s career journey in the sciences.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: The person you are today is not defined by who you were yesterday, last semester, or even last year. Even though college moves fast, there is so much opportunity worth taking advantage of, especially at ASU, so don’t hesitate to try new things. This of course applies to anyone going through a tough time, but it also applies to people experiencing a lot of success. Seize each day as it comes!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I love the Greek Leadership Village. There are great outdoor common areas and study spots, and I really enjoyed living with my fraternity. Areas of campus like the village, much like Barrett, are what makes ASU feel like a tight-knit community.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: There are so many issues in need of funding, but I would choose to invest in education in underserved areas of the world. Providing opportunities for students to develop technical skills, learn about the current state of our climate, gain an understanding of healthy habits, and learn personal finance will help unify and uplift the world. Through education, the impact of a happy and healthy lifestyle can be multiplied for generations.

Q: Were you involved in any clubs, sports or other organizations during your time at ASU? 

A: Over my four years at ASU, I was involved at Barrow Neurological Institute as a student researcher, Sister Cities International’s Scottsdale Chapter, Undergraduate Student Government, Sigma Nu leadership fraternity, assistant teaching at the honors college and the Student Health Advisory Board, among others. 

Kyle Polen at laboratory at Barrow Neurological Institute

Kyle Polen at a laboratory at Barrow Neurological Institute, where he studies therapeutic targets to stabilize intracranial aneurysms. He began working there as a summer intern before being hired as a part-time research technician. Photo courtesy Kyle Polen

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change


ASU graduate aims to demystify AI through children's book

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

How do we understand the story of artificial intelligence? Student Kacy Hatfield Kacy Hatfield Download Full Image

Kacy Hatfield is a student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts who aims to make the story of AI accessible to all – and is doing so by writing a children’s book. Kacy is graduating this May with a degree in digital culture, and is an undergraduate researcher for the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics.

After graduation, she will pursue a master's degree and has been invited to participate in the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs

She shared more about her college journey below. 

Question: Tell us a bit about your experience at ASU and how you came to study digital culture.

Answer: I actually came to ASU as a biochemistry major; I love chemistry and math, but the career path wasn't exactly what I wanted. I then explored career and creative job opportunities where I found digital culture and in just three days I was hooked and made the switch. And there is still so much of what I love in studying AI, and I get to integrate my love for chemistry and math into that. 

I actually hadn't even heard of machine learning until spring 2021, and after my professor introduced it to us, I asked her for book recommendations. From then on, I was obsessed with AI.

Q: What inspired you to pursue undergraduate research? 

A: Well, I actually did my honors thesis shortly after I learned about AI and machine learning. I decided that I wanted to pursue it, even though I really didn’t know much about the subject, and I pitched it to several professors I wanted to work with, who all were very supportive. I defended my thesis almost exactly a year after I had first learned about machine learning, and I just had such an amazing time working on my thesis that I wanted to continue doing research. 

I then found the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, which had an undergraduate research opportunity on responsible AI. I met with Research Program Manager Erica O’Neil over Zoom, and I thought it would be the perfect continuation of my work. It’s amazing to keep doing research on this, not just to learn but to ultimately come away with more questions. 

Q: You're working on a really fascinating project, in which you’re developing a children’s book on AI. Can you share more on this project? 

A: The premise is an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of an algorithm named Pip — like the command in Python Programming Language — and Pip has to classify seashells on the beach. How Pip classifies them starts out in very simple terms, and as waves wash up on the shore, more advanced terminology is revealed. There’s also a character named Epoch — another term in Python — as well as a character that represents the human in the loop. All of them are placed very strategically to represent what would take place if a machine learning algorithm were to be integrated in this area. 

Image of a book cover for Your Pal, PipThe goal is to help people feel less scared about machine learning. I often see AI described as a black box; something that that people can't see into, and can't understand. But I think the test of a good machine learning algorithm – and a good programmer — is to translate that black box into something that is easily understood.

Part of the reason I love machine learning is because even if I dedicate my entire life to studying AI, I will never have a fully comprehensive grasp of it, because it's just always expanding and advancing so fast. I think that's key in why people feel uncertainty about machine learning, especially when the Hollywood narrative of AI is the humanoid robot that is going to take over. The thing is, these technologies are amoral, not immoral. 

My goal as a researcher is to start mitigating skepticism around the subject of machine learning through this book. And this starts with younger people, but the book is also meant to be used by people of all ages. 

Q: How has your time in the responsible AI research group related back to your work? 

A: I love being in this research group. It's actually my second semester; last semester I did a project on the risks and mitigations of AI-powered autonomous spacecraft, which is another one of my interests. It’s so awesome to be part of a group of people that have such different backgrounds and different approaches to AI. There are so many interdisciplinary perspectives and topics brought up in discussion. 

I think that in terms of responsible AI – and a lot of people may disagree with me on this – it is integral for a programmer to also be able to see the ethical implications of whatever they're employing into the world. There’s often the argument that we should wait five years before evaluating those possible impacts; when I am working on programming, I'm immediately thinking about how it may affect the real world and be used. 

Machine learning is like a mirror - it's going to reflect whatever we give it, and humans are not perfect. This is why I think the conversations on ethics have to go hand in hand with the research itself, and it's really interesting to see how it comes about on all different fronts.

Q: What comes next for you in your career and future?

A: That’s the age-old question, isn’t it? I always have a list of problems that I can research! This may be a nerdy confession, but I love doing research even in my free time. I hope to direct that energy into the pursuit of a master's degree and possibly even a PhD. I have also been invited to join the Machine Intelligence Group at Draper Labs in summer 2023 as an undergraduate engineer, which is a very exciting opportunity. 

The amazing thing about this field is it's always changing, and in some regard, I will always feel like a student. And because the study of AI is so new, I feel like taking the ethical and programming approach at the same time would be a lot easier to integrate than something that's already established. I hope to keep these skills as best practices in the future. 

There is a lot of skepticism around AI and machine learning, and often I hear people say that it’s too complicated or complex. Everybody has the capability to understand AI, and it's not as scary as it seems. Even though it's been tremendously skewed for entertainment, which makes it easier to vilify, there are so many benefits to using machine learning, and we can employ it in the right ways to augment our human experience and not hinder it.

Karina Fitzgerald

Communications program coordinator , Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics