An ‘existential crisis’ put Outstanding Graduating Senior on new path

April 24, 2023

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

Natalie Jenq was in her second year at ASU as a business management major when COVID-19 threw a curveball at her plans. Turken Family Outstanding Graduating Senior Natalie Jenq. Download Full Image

“During the lockdown, I experienced an existential crisis that made me question what I was doing and if the path I was on would be fulfilling in the end,” Jenq says. “All the losses during the pandemic brought to light what I truly valued and how life is too short not to try for the things you love.”

The Turken Family Outstanding Graduating Senior added a degree in marketing and a minor in film and media production, helping her forge a new path. She spent her final year at ASU editing bays and soundstages and will soon work as an actor and producer.

“Life is all about learning and growing, and we do that by taking risks and saying yes to new opportunities,” she says. “Meeting new people who encouraged and supported me helped me build up the courage to shift courses and focus my career on the entertainment business.”

Jenq shares more of the lessons she learned while at ASU.

Question: Why did you choose ASU? 

Answer: I chose ASU due to the generous scholarship I received from the university. Beyond that, I wanted to study at a strong business school that provides students ample opportunities. Unlike other business schools, W. P. Carey provides direct admission, which allowed me to be enrolled in my major program from day one, saving me a lot of stress.

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

A: Michael Mokwa (professor and Pat Tillman Foundation Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Marketing) was my professor as a Tillman Scholar. His guidance and passion for his students helped me rediscover who I am. Through a series of self-reflection exercises highlighting who I am at my core, I learned what leadership style best suits me. Professor Mokwa also brought me my best friends through the T-16 cohort, who have shown me so much support and taught me something valuable with their perspectives on the world. Professor Mokwa and my cohort gave me the courage to chase after my dreams and helped me unlock a new point of view on what it means to lead and inspire those around me, just as Pat Tillman did.

Q: What’s the best advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: Be open to new experiences. There is no set path in life; college is a time to explore new ideas, cultures and experiences. By trying new things and challenging your comfort zones, you might discover new passions, make lifelong friendships and gain a new perspective on the world. Also, don’t forget to take care of yourself along the way, both physically and mentally. Self-care is not selfish but essential for your overall well-being and success in college and beyond.

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

A: Dean’s Patio is the place to be. Located at the heart of the business school, I love how it brings us all together, from students to faculty members. Not to mention, the W. P. Carey Starbucks is there, making it super convenient to get my daily coffee fix (I’ve spent way too much money there). I’ve also loved the new ASU Media and Immersive eXperience (MIX) Center in Mesa. It is a stunning building with an insane amount of production and editing resources. Although it just opened last year, I've spent a large chunk of my senior year in the editing bays and soundstages, and every single moment has been a blast.

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: After graduation, I will take a much-needed break by returning to Taiwan for a few weeks. When I return, I will work as an actor and producer in the Arizona commercial industry for approximately eight months. In 2024, I will work on a couple of independent projects and a feature film that I’m super excited about! Once shooting has wrapped, I will transition to Los Angeles to take on more opportunities and reconnect with industry professionals I met at NBCUniversal. A master’s degree is also something I have planned for the next few years.

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

A: It’s a difficult question because there is so much to choose from. I would put it toward accelerating the transition to renewable/clean energy. The current process for energy production revolves heavily around burning fossil fuels, which is a huge factor in the greenhouse gases that pollute the Earth’s atmosphere and trap the sun’s heat. Many companies have made enormous strides to increase renewable energy sources and decrease greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. I want to do what I can to help ensure future generations can enjoy a healthy and livable planet.

Ellen Grady

Copy writer, W. P. Carey School of Business

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