Daring to dream of neural networks
Hear how a love of math and problem solving can lead to new frontiers in machine learning, artificial intelligence, neural networks, and self-driving cars
Disclaimer [00:00:00] The views and opinions expressed in this podcast by the hosts and guests may or may not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Miami University.
Student [00:00:08] Freshman year I came in undecided. I'm finance, entrepreneurship, anthropology. I'm a senior architecture student. I'm involved in the blockchain club here. I'm very passionate about studying abroad. Classes are going great.
Student [00:00:19] And then obviously very involved with my sorority.
Student [00:00:21] I'm thriving.
Meredith Aliff [00:00:25] Hi, I'm Meredith Aliff and this is major insight. This is the podcast where we talk college life with amazing students about how to find your place and purpose on campus. Ben Maldonado has always loved math and problem solving, which is why he's now exploring the new frontiers of machine learning and artificial intelligence as a computer science and a data science and statistics double major. Ben has already held internships with Neurolex Laboratories and Amazon. We'll also talk about making hard college decisions like needing to close some doors before new ones can open. Why? Learning where you don't belong can be just as important as learning where you do, and about being totally and radically unafraid to try.
Meredith Aliff [00:01:12] And I'm going to ask you first, who are you?
Ben Maldonado [00:01:15] My name is Ben Maldonado . I'm a senior computer science and data science major, and I like to rock climb.
Meredith Aliff [00:01:25] Nice! So your majors, you have two. Did you come straight in knowing that those were going to be the ones that you did?
Ben Maldonado [00:01:31] Not at all. Originally, when I was applying to college, computer science was on the list. That was definitely one of them that I wanted to do, but that was not going to be the original, I guess, main major. I was focused more on psychology and computer science. I was going to do like industrial organizational psychology. And then after that I was like, you know, if that doesn't work out for me, maybe I'll consider going to law school because I was really big in a mock trial at high school. And then I got here and one of my psychology advisors was like, Hey, there's some people in the computer science department that would love to talk to you because, you know, you're more focused on psychology, but obviously computer science is one of your other majors, and there's an interesting intersection. And so I ended up talking to my now master's thesis advisor and he was like, You should take this machine learning class. Machine learning is like a very statistics based thing. And after that, I remembered how much I enjoyed statistics in high school. And then I was like, Maybe I should do this. Yeah.
Meredith Aliff [00:02:32] So what led you to be like, I like computer science. Like what? Reasoning for that.
Ben Maldonado [00:02:38] So I did robotics for a long time, and then I was kind of at the age where I could start to do things myself with my own autonomy. I was like, Man, my friends have all these really nice gaming computers and I really want one. My dad was like, Absolutely not. We're not getting that for you. And I was like, Okay, what if I spent some of my own money and you help me pay for it? And I just, like, prove to you that I understood how it worked because, you know, there's like the CPU, the graphics card, the whole way. And I was like, I want to make sure I can prove to him that I know everything that's going on in here. And it was super interesting. And so then between that and robotics, I was like, Oh, well, the really clear, you know, place to go here. It's like, I really like this computer stuff. You know, I like all this. I didn't do much coding during robotics, but, you know, there's a lot of people who did do it. So I was kind of surrounded by those people. But I also really like math, like all the way through elementary school. So it's like this kind of mix, the interest in computers and the interest in math together.
Meredith Aliff [00:03:35] Definitely. I just always think it's so interesting to hear how people come about picking their majors, because I think there's so many majors out there now that you can literally be like, I enjoyed robotics and I enjoyed learning about this computer. And so these hobbies that people have, or these like clubs that you did in high school. You can study them.
[00:03:57] Are there any classes that stand out to you, any professors that stand out to you so far in your time here that you would want to give a little shout out to today?
Ben Maldonado [00:04:07] I'm definitely gonna give a shout out to my thesis advisor. He took me under his wing, kind of like I talked about with, you know, getting recommended over from the psychology department. And even though I didn't have any of the classes to take his class, like, know none of the requisites, he just said, No, okay, just take it anyways. It was a kind of a wild ride, but through him I was able to get some good machine learning experience and obviously now research experience. And he's just really been in my corner the whole time and I've really appreciated that.
Meredith Aliff [00:04:38] Oh, that's awesome. Well, tell me about that. What is your research on campus been like?
Ben Maldonado [00:04:44] I have had like three major research experiences. My very first one was in the psychology department. I was doing research with Dr. Robin Thomas. She does cognitive neuroscience stuff. And essentially that was just me doing machine learning in the psychology context. There was another lab I was a part of in the Center for Analytics and Data Science. They have just a lot of various projects that they bring students onto to give them like real world experience. That one was working for the women's field hockey team at Miami, which is actually very good, by the way. Their coach wanted to have like stronger data analysis because, you know, they're already winning so often they want to win even more and they want to, you know, keep that lead going. Mm hmm. So they wanted some data science students to come in and do some analytics on it and then finally come out on my master's thesis. I'm doing like essentially public health modeling, and we're using various graph theory techniques. Basically, you can like model out these things and they're called causal maps. You have like a node that represents a concept. And you have like a relationship between a bunch of other concepts. So it's of a little blobs of arrows between them. And it's supposed to represent like, you know, for instance, if you have like financial stability is one concept and it has like a positive relationship with, I don't know, Mental health services. Then as your financial stability goes up, so too does your access to mental health services. And we're able to use those to represent complex health problems that don't really have like a simple solution of, Oh, we're just going to give them a vaccine, you know? Like, for instance, the one that I'm currently working on with the CDC is adolescent suicide.
Meredith Aliff [00:06:31] Okay.
Ben Maldonado [00:06:32] It's not really something that you can just like, you know, hey, you know, here's a pill. Take it. It's all ... you know. It's much more difficult and complex problem. So my thesis is kind of focusing on, like, analyzing those models and also building tools that will help build more of those models and validate them against real world data.
Meredith Aliff [00:06:51] Okay, that's super cool. What else do you do outside of class organizations, clubs, things like that?
Ben Maldonado [00:06:58] I would say what I'm currently involved in and probably has been involved in the longest has been my fraternity. So I'm in a coed Latino fraternity called Alpha PSI, Lambda. we're Brand new. Just been around here for about three semesters. I'm actually the new member educator for that. You know, I really wanted to, like, get connected to Latino culture because, you know, on my dad's side, we're from Puerto Rico, and it's been a really fun experience, Honestly.
Meredith Aliff [00:07:24] Yeah, definitely.
Ben Maldonado [00:07:25] Enriching.
Meredith Aliff [00:07:26] What would you say like to somebody who is thinking about joining like a coed fraternity like that.
Ben Maldonado [00:07:32] In general, those kind of Greek life organizations, they're very nice because you have a group of people who are interested in contributing a similar amount to you. So when it comes to like my coed fraternity in particular, it's a whole bunch of people who are all extremely interested in promoting Latino culture on an institution which doesn't have a lot of people of color. And so being able to fill that role and kind of expand that, it's been just very nice because everyone has the same ideas ... well not the same ideas. Everyone has the same goals and a similar passion for completing those goals. And I think a lot of other organizations that I've been a part of haven't had like a national organization they've had to call to. So it's like a little more like a group of friends who were just kind of doing stuff they're all interested in together versus being in a fraternity, it's a little different because it's like not only are we, you know, subject to the rules we create for ourselves, but also according to the national standards. And that's just that's very different, I think, from a lot of other experiences I've had.
Meredith Aliff [00:08:34] It really is. I mean, to I was vice president of inclusion and I'm just outgoing, actually, I'm finishing up. So it's been a good run.
Ben Maldonado [00:08:43] Which...
Meredith Aliff [00:08:44] Cappa Delta sorority. You know, you're part of this organization that is part of an organization... You know, this much bigger thing. I mean, we talk to our members all the time about, hey, like your actions impact you. Obviously. They impact the people around you, but you're part of something bigger when you join. You know, you have to be aware that like ... you have to act for more than yourself. You know, it's really cool and very gratifying. So when you're not at Miami, have you participated in any internships, things like that.
Ben Maldonado [00:09:19] So I've had, I think, four internships. The very first one was also at the same time as the second one. The first project was for a company called Neurolex. Basically, they did like vocal computing, so the specific project I was working on was trying to identify people with ADHD through that. The other internship I was doing that summer, essentially we were trying to build self-driving cars that would learn using neural networks and other forms of machine learning.
Meredith Aliff [00:09:50] So, so cool.
Ben Maldonado [00:09:51] It was very it was very, very, very cool.
Meredith Aliff [00:09:54] Would you say the classes that you're taking and the things that you're learning here? Do you actively use the things that you're learning in those internships and vice versa? Did the things that you do in those internships kind of better prepare you for the classes that you end up taking while you're here?
Ben Maldonado [00:10:08] And they hit it right in the middle and say yes and no.
Meredith Aliff [00:10:10] Okay.
Ben Maldonado [00:10:11] When it comes to the things you learn in classes, there's 100% across application for that, especially in computer science. There is absolutely no way I could have done that first internship without the vocal models, without having taken that machine learning class, because otherwise I'd just be sitting there like, Well, where do I start?
Meredith Aliff [00:10:28] Yeah
Ben Maldonado [00:10:29] I needed that background knowledge in order to do it. I've definitely learned a lot of things from my internships that I've reapplied back to my education. They came through my two internships at Amazon because they had just a lot of things and I was like, Oh man, like, this is how you build software in like a real world environment. It's really hard to replicate that in the classroom because, you know, you're not working with 15 other people in the scope of this giant project that's very, very different. And it's just not really easy to replicate. And also, you're not working on one project for like three months like you would at the Amazon internship.
Meredith Aliff [00:11:11] What are you going to do after you leave here? What's your plan?
Ben Maldonado [00:11:16] I like to think that instead of having an idea for the next 50 years of my life, I'll just plan the next three years. So what I'll probably be doing is just returning to my team at Amazon. This team this last summer was pretty interesting. They do like machine learning for cybersecurity stuff. So I get a little bit of a hand in the research and a little bit of a hand in the software and, you know, depending on where I want to end up going after working there for a while, I can kind of mosey my way into the research end.... So if I do eventually decide to mosey more into the research end, then after, like, I don't know, like four or five years, I'll be up to considering a Ph.D. in machine learning.
Meredith Aliff [00:11:58] That's exciting.
Ben Maldonado [00:11:59] It's exciting and terrifying because those can take, like, five years to finish.
Meredith Aliff [00:12:02] Yeah.
Ben Maldonado [00:12:03] Yeah. It's so hard to look like that far in the future. It's so far and it's like, think about how much has changed ever since you got to college. I'm like, Oh my gosh, I can't possibly imagine the position I'm in now when I first stepped foot on the campus. However, because I just I was very open to new things and that kind of just led me down, you know, whatever path it led me down. That's very different from what I expected.
Meredith Aliff [00:12:25] Yeah. I mean, it's just kind of crazy because we're both, you know, on the latter half of our time here and just going back and, you know, never, ever did I think that I would be sitting here hosting a podcast three years later, you know, like it's just kind of crazy where the world... Where the world will pull you. So that's a very good philosophy. I like the three years. I'm going to try to implement that into my life.
Ben Maldonado [00:12:50] Some things you can't do that for. Like if you have to go to like med school or something.
Meredith Aliff [00:12:54] Yeah.
Ben Maldonado [00:12:55] You got to look at that in 8 year chunks.
Meredith Aliff [00:12:59] Do you though?! Do you have to? [laughter]
Meredith Aliff [00:13:02] So I have a question that I've been asking people that I want your input on, and it's not an easy question, so you can take some time to think if you need to. What is the singular best decision that you've made in college?
Ben Maldonado [00:13:21] Okay, This is my answer.
Meredith Aliff [00:13:23] Okay.
Ben Maldonado [00:13:24] Everyone always talks about like when you come to college, how you got to be open to new things. Right. And that's very good. I'm a huge proponent of saying that. But when it actually comes down to doing the openness and making hard decisions, people usually shy away from that. And it's, like, really hard. I had done mock trial in high school for four years, and then I was like, you know, Miami has... At that time they had just won Nationals. So Miami has a great mock trial program. Here we go. Another bonus point for Miami. Let's hop in their top on the mock trial team. Let's continue the legacy. I did that first semester and then I left. I was like. I don't know. It's for me.
Meredith Aliff [00:14:06] Okay.
Ben Maldonado [00:14:07] And then COVID hit. And over that COVID, I was like, maybe I made the wrong decision. Maybe I left too early and didn't give it the right shot. Then I rejoined and I realized why I left in the first place. And so I left again. And let me tell you, like leaving that second time was like a gut punch, because I always like to try to be like a person of my word. Mm hmm. And during the interviews when I was coming in, they were like, How do we know you're not going to leave again? And I was like, I'm here. I'm set to go. I'm set to stay. And then to leave again: I felt like just the worst person. I felt like I'm not true to my word. I'm not being myself. I'm just a quitter.
Meredith Aliff [00:14:53] Yeah.
Ben Maldonado [00:14:54] But as a result of making that decision, which I still think is the right decision for me, I was able to go and find so much more, so many more things that I wouldn't have had time for. I wouldn't have had time to join Alpha Psi Lambda or to take part in some of the recreational leagues that I'm a part of now. It's just those are things that I very much value and that are like core parts of my life now. But because I was afraid to take the step of, like, actually opening myself up to that, I almost didn't experience these things. That's not to say that you should quit when things get hard. But that is to say that when you do realize that something is good or bad for you, you should commit to that decision.
Meredith Aliff [00:15:42] Right. Obviously you felt one way about it at the time, but looking back, it was the best decision for you in that moment. I have a final question for you, but I want to ask you one right before and it's what I've heard so far as like math data, computers, like, internships, research. What do you do to let off steam? I mean, you can't just do that all day. What do you do for fun, Ben?
Ben Maldonado [00:16:09] One of the main reasons why I got into my fraternity is because a lot of them go to something called Latin Night.
Ben Maldonado [00:16:18] And it was some of the most fun I've had because I was a dancer in a previous life. Mm hmm. Back in middle school, I used to do dance, but I just hadn't had time for it for a long time. And so we had all these people, and they knew how to dance like a bachata and merengue. Like, oh, my gosh, I had such a good time, and the music was always so good. I love to do that. So with MAP this year, we actually partner with them and put on a salsa dance, and we brought in a salsa teacher.
Meredith Aliff [00:16:47] That's so fun!
Ben Maldonado [00:16:47] Oh my gosh, I love to dance. And specifically, like Latino dances, they're so much fun to dance. Outside of that. I also rock climb and I route set for the rock climbing climbs.
Meredith Aliff [00:17:00] Okay. I love it. Final question for you. If you could talk to yourself or someone in the position of beginning to start college. You have no idea what to expect. What advice would you give to somebody in that position?
Ben Maldonado [00:17:17] Believe.
Meredith Aliff [00:17:18] Okay.
Ben Maldonado [00:17:19] I watched this video recently and it was like, you know, how would I redo my computer science education? And the number one thing he said is like, it's not about how much you know or like whether or not, you know, X, Y, Z new library in the newest, hottest language. It's about whether or not you believe that when there's a problem you don't know how to solve. You can Google it and figure it out. And so going into college, you don't know much. And as you go through education, you're going to learn just how little you know about the world and about even the field that you studied for four years. Coming away from this degree. I feel like I know even less. Like I know I know more, obviously. But like, I feel like I know a smaller percentage than I thought I knew coming in. So you just have to believe that whenever you encounter that problem, whenever you encounter that obstacle or thing you don't know, that you can encounter it, you can get over it, you can figure it out, and you can move on past it.
Meredith Aliff [00:18:16] Very good answer. Anything else you'd like to share with me today before we call it a day here?
Ben Maldonado [00:18:23] Join Alpha Psi Lambda.
Meredith Aliff [00:18:28] Ben Maldonado is majoring in computer science and data science and statistics at Miami University. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career in security analytics and AI research. And thank you for listening to major insight. If you enjoyed this podcast, share it with your friends or anyone interested in navigating college life. Many more episodes are now available wherever podcasts are found.
Major Insight is a roadmap for college students who wish to find their place and purpose on campus. Each episode features real stories with real students who are successfully navigating 21st century university life.