Alums Get Active: Run, Hack, Flow, STAR, Reach Out
Showing up for the Pi Miler, Mentoring at HackTJ, Speaking at Flow Day, tjSTAR, and the Diversity Open House, and, of course, Meeting Up Across the Country
Alums Show Up for Pi(e) Miler
TJ’s Alumni Association (TJAA), part of the TJ Partnership Fund, knows that no matter how great a TJ event is, increased alumni participation will make it even better. With the goal of attracting more alumni to the annual Pi Miler 5K race (approximately 3.14 miles, the first few digits of the mathematical constant pi), TJAA officers reached out with encouraging social media messages and greeted alumni runners at a table covered with alumni gear.
The race, a junior class-sponsored fundraiser now in its 7th year, mixes students, parents, faculty, and alumni in an atmosphere that is more camaraderie than competition. The 2017 race, held on Saturday, March 18th, brought the event back to campus after several years at Burke Lake Park.
In a new twist, this year’s race was nicknamed the “Prismatic Pi Miler” and featured a “color run,” in which willing runners had brightly colored dye flung at their white race t-shirts as they passed by, resulting in a parade of runners approaching the finish line sporting Jackson Pollock-style works of art. The colorful theme, plus a fun run for the younger crowd and a reward of bagels and, of course, pies after all the hard work, made it a terrific family event.
Sixteen Alumni Serve as HackTJ Mentors
HackTJ, organized for a third year by 8th period club Coding Lady Colonials (CLC), and in its second year as a Major League Hacking event, is one of the oldest, largest, and most sophisticated high school hackathons in the country (see March 2016, June 2015, and June 2013 issues). In order to accommodate coding novices and also ensure that experienced teams have someone to go to for advice, the hackathon relies on mentors to lead workshops, coach teams, answer questions, and serve as judges.
Nearly 40% of the 41 mentors at HackTJ4.0 were TJ alumni. From graduates of TJ’s first “Senior Experience” classes of 1986 and 1987 to newly minted grads of the Class of 2016, alums came out to share their expertise and soak up the TJ atmosphere at one of the school’s signature events.
Aditi Chaudhry, TJ ’11, hadn’t attended any previous TJ hackathons as either a participant or a mentor. As one of five alums from Capital One — a HackTJ sponsor — who volunteered to serve as hackathon mentors, she feels grateful to be part of a company where the senior leadership recognizes the impact of technology. Chaudhry is in Capital One’s college hire program, where she spent last year as a software engineer working on APIs and is currently working in cybersecurity for her second rotation. She was particularly excited when she learned that the event was organized by CLC, a group that has done so much to encourage and support girls at TJ and beyond. Bringing more women into computer science careers “is an issue I care a lot about,” she said, noting that she now has “time, resources, and connections to support the cause.” She continued, “We didn’t have clubs like CLC when I was at TJ. I was the only girl in my Robotics class, and one of only three in AI [Artificial Intelligence]. And one of the other two is also here.”
Catherine Dworak, TJ ’11, Chaudhry’s former AI classmate, was also attending her first HackTJ. “We didn’t have anything like this,” said Dworak, a software engineer who was volunteering with a group of alumni mentors from Yext. A TJ-founded company based in New York, Yext is a major Campaign for TJ donor (see June 2016 issue) and a HackTJ sponsor (the third girl from Chaudhry’s AI class, Stephanie Colen, is a software engineer at Appian, also a HackTJ sponsor). Yext’s Tysons office has 30 employees, five of whom are TJ alums. “Two of our summer interns are participating in the hackathon. We always joke that the only reason we have a Tysons office is to have a TJ pipeline,” Dworak said with a smile.
Sometimes that pipeline works in surprising ways. Dan Tran, TJ ’06, met Yext CTO Sean MacIsaac, TJ ’98, last February when both were serving as mentors at HackTJ 3.0. MacIsaac recruited Tran to Yext’s New York office, where he now works as a Product Manager. “[MacIsaac] sets the culture of the engineering team and people feel comfortable there because it has a TJ feeling,” Tran explained. Tran is back for his third year at HackTJ because the students are so inspiring. “Sometimes kids are doing things that are over my head. There’s a lot of brain power here.”
Clare Politano, TJ ’05, at right, advising a team of five TJ girls, learned about HackTJ from a Women Who Code DC social media post by CS teacher and CLC advisor, Ria Galanos. Politano is a software engineer at Social Tables, an event-planning software start-up that manages events for 4,000 customers around the world. In an it’s-a-small-TJ-world coincidence, the start-up was launched from 1776, the DC-based incubator founded by Evan Burfield, TJ ’95. “CS at TJ has evolved a lot since my day,” Politano said. The very fact that a woman is teaching in the CS department is “huge.”
Nathan Dass, TJ ’14, participated in TJ ‘s first hackathon, held in 2013. A Computer Science major at Georgia Tech, he heard about this year’s event from his sister, Megan Dass, TJ ’20, who was planning to participate. When he realized that he would be home on Spring Break during the event weekend, he volunteered to help out. A veteran of several college hackathons, he had seen HackTJ on the MLH website and knew it had grown, but was still surprised at what he saw. “This looks like a full-blown college hackathon . . . I couldn’t even tell the difference,” he said.
Kevin Deisz, TJ ’09, a software engineer at Localytics, a Boston-based start-up, was also in town for the weekend and was able to spend some time volunteering at HackTJ. He first heard about the hackathon while attending the Partnership Fund’s Alumni-in-Boston happy hour, where he was recruited by none other than CS teacher Galanos, who was with a group of TJ faculty attending the annual National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools conference held this year in Boston (see Nov 2016 issue). His take on TJ’s fourth hackathon: “I wish this had happened when I was here.”
HackTJ was a recipient of a 2016-2017 TJ Partnership Fund Community Grant. Event organizers kindly tweeted: “Huge thanks to our school’s very own Partnership Fund for providing us with a grant and for everything else you do at TJ!”
Alumni Show Students How to Flow With Failure
Who would go out of their way to talk to a room full of students about their own past failures? Amazingly, a number of alumni showed up at TJ’s annual Flow Day to do just that. TJ’s Flow Day, which started as a venue for faculty, students, alumni, and others in the community to share what gives them “Flow” — a sense of losing themselves in a challenging, yet enjoyable activity — is now an annual 8th period session where a variety of speakers address the year’s One Question.
Previous TJ Flow Days
Addressed 2015-2016 “One Question”: How can we foster a sense of community in our inherently competitive TJ environment? (see June 2016 issue)
Addressed 2014-2015 “One Question”: How can we strive to discover and pursue our own passions despite societal norms and external pressures that would compromise our aspirations and dissuade us from pursuing them? (see June 2015 issue)
Addressed 2013-2014 “One Book,” Drive: What gives you “flow?” (see June 2014 issue)
This year, Adarsh Kulkarni, TJ ’17, and Jami Park, TJ ’17, submitted a provocative question that challenges speakers to display both their vulnerability and their wisdom:
How can we better embrace failure within the TJ community and use it as an opportunity for learning and growth?
On April 5th, alumni joined faculty, staff, students, parents, and others, speaking individually, in teams, or on panels for three consecutive 25-minute sessions. By sharing their stories of personal or professional growth, alumni participants helped students understand how admitting and embracing failure can lead to maturity, self-knowledge, growth, and new beginnings. Because alumni were once in students’ shoes, students paid close attention to what they had to say.
Sneha Mantri, TJ’03, at right, participated via FaceTime from Philadelphia, where she is a Clinical Fellow in Movement Disorders at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She titled her talk, “A ‘fireside chat’-style talk with a practicing neurologist on bringing the arts and sciences closer together,” and explained that she had always wanted to be both a doctor and a writer. However, in keeping with the Flow Day theme, Mantri’s emphasis was less about combining art and science and more about resilience and growth.
As a TJ senior, Mantri applied via early admission to Princeton and didn’t get in. She was shocked and disappointed, and found it hard to recover from what was the first failure of her life. However, after a few weeks at UVA, her safety school, she was happier than she had ever been. At UVA, she double-majored in Biochemistry and Comparative Literature and was even able to take a Literature in Medicine course. Later, after being rejected from her first-choice medical school, she landed at a school with a special program in Narrative Medicine that led to a Master’s Degree in the subject. Mantri’s message to students was that although there will be moments that feel horrible, the best opportunities may be just around the corner.
David Pincus, TJ ’93, right, a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and management consultant, who is also a veteran scuba diver and inventor, sat on a “Celebrating Failure” panel with Mona Suleman, a psychologist in private practice, and Meg McLaughlin, Deputy Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel during the Obama Administration. The panel, organized by TJ freshman Summer Keating, was sub-titled, “Failure Isn’t What You Think It Is — Lessons from the Real World.”
Pincus described the way he thought about his future when he was a TJ student: “Life was linear. You study hard in order to come to TJ, study hard in order to go to a good college, study hard in order to get a good job. If you do well, you’ll be promoted to management.” After working as a medical device designer, project manager, implementation coach, and management consultant, he learned that, on the contrary, “life is not a linear journey. Real life is more meandering. Failure tells you when you might want to do something differently. The hardest thing in the world is to change your relationship with failure. Even if you have failed at something, you are not a failure,” he said.
When teaching innovative techniques to business school students, he explained, he asks them to spend 20% of their time planning, 40% executing their plan, and then the final 40% of their time rethinking the solution and making it better. “If we try ten solutions I expect at least three or four to be unsuccessful. Everything working perfectly the first time is a red flag that we missed something,” he said.
Pincus shared a personal anecdote about his failure to successfully manufacture and distribute a word-clock he had invented. By the time he received a letter from a competing company’s attorney informing him of the existence of a prior design patent, he had already spent thousands of dollars — much of it raised from friends and family — on prototypes and factory visits. He has come to view the experience not as a failure but instead as excellent preparation for his next project.
Unlike school, “life doesn’t have prerequisites. When I graduated from TJ I felt like I knew everything. After Duke I felt that I had so much more to learn. You need exposure to failure . . . so you can stop defining yourself by things you can and can’t do,” he said.
Jackie Bello, TJ ’04, right, daughter of former English teacher Judy Bello, who also spoke at Flow Day, had the packed crowd paying attention from her first words. “I’m a TJ kid,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist. But having courage means telling the full story,” not just the polished, selected portions that show us in the best light.
She began with the story of how, as a sophomore at Princeton, she broke her neck playing rugby and then failed to come out of the game even though she suspected she had been severely injured. She then recounted how in the aftermath of that injury and subsequent hospitalization she refused to lighten her academic or extracurricular load, causing her to fall behind.
Finally, she told everyone about the night when she realized that she had an English paper due the next day and plagiarized some sentences, weaving them into her own work until she had convinced herself that what she had done wasn’t really cheating. Only when the teaching assistant asked her about the paper’s unusual language did she break down and admit her wrongdoing. Pursuant to the school’s policy, she served a one-year suspension for her honor code violation, something she had not widely admitted until this day.
Bello, co-founder of a non-profit focused on educating at-risk students, had not shared her story publicly, but she had shared it before. She had written about her suspension in her applications to two prestigious business schools. She was admitted to both.
Bello told her story to three packed classrooms full of TJ students — and approved the publication of this piece — because she believes that it’s so important for young people to know that “we’re all flawed” and that “when you think the world is ending, it isn’t.”
First, she wants TJ students to think twice before pushing themselves beyond safe limits, whether that means going without sleep, texting while driving, or just not learning when to say no to an additional activity. Second, she wants them to think very, very hard before compromising their ethical standards. But finally, she wants them to know that a bad experience, even a critically bad mistake like the one she made, “can be the kind of shakeup that you need. There’s a lot to be learned from stumbling,” she said.
Pacific Northwest Site of Latest Regional Alumni Meet-up
TJ Partnership Fund’s first ever Seattle Area Alumni Happy Hour was held on Tuesday, March 28th at Grant Thornton’s downtown office. TJ’s Science & Technology Division Manager (and Neuroscience Lab Director) Mark Hannum, who flew out for the day, enjoyed sharing his perspective with the diverse group of attendees. Hannum was joined by TJPF Outreach and Partnerships Manager Sally Zabel and Senior Development Manager Samantha Courtney, who have been organizing regional alumni events — sometimes with assistance from a local alum — as a way of bringing our widespread alumni family closer to each other and to TJ.
Alumni in attendance included representatives of the Class of 1989, TJ’s first four-year class, all the way to the Class of 2012, the school’s most recent college graduates. Techies, including employees of Microsoft and Amazon, were well-represented, but there were also teachers, consultants, and even someone who had started a rock-climbing business. The Seattle alums had such a good time that they’re already planning to hold frequent happy hours to keep in touch and network.
The day before the meet-up, the two TJPF staff members met for coffee with a group of alums at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, a Seattle suburb. Some of the half-dozen TJ grads who attended had never met the other TJ alums at their company. TJPF to the social rescue!
More than Two Dozen Alums Turn Out for tjSTAR
This year’s tjSTAR research symposium included more alumni on the schedule than ever before. Over two dozen alums, from the earliest to most recent classes, representing a wide spectrum of jobs and career paths, delivered talks or sat on panels during the all-day event (some alums participated remotely). At the end of the day, several alums gathered at a nearby restaurant for an early happy hour, arranged by PF Alumni Board Member Anne Appler, TJ ’92, Parent ’20.
The following are highlights from presentations attended by Newsworthy staff:
Brian Rabe ’09, “Retinal Development and Disease.” He discussed the molecular genetics behind retinal development and disease, focusing on his work that attempts to better understand the process of retinal cell differentiation. He also described his path from TJ to a PhD program at Harvard.
Kevin Caffrey ’01, “Categorizing Locations.” He provided a basic overview of AI and multi-layer neural networks and then showed a live demonstration of how his company, Yext, uses AI. Yext collects information from companies that want an online presence and distributes it to hundreds of online platforms. If, for example, a company fails to enter correct information about what type of company it is (e.g., hair salon or restaurant), the company’s machine-learning algorithm can identify the mistake and prompt a correction.
Carrie Nixon ’92, Dr. Gretchen Daines Buckler ’91, and Jonathan Sredl, ’10, “The New Healthcare.” Nixon, a founding member of Nixon Law Group LLC, a boutique healthcare firm, is also a consultant focusing on healthcare reform. Gretchen is an MD who has held numerous positions that do not involve seeing patients. Sredl is a healthcare analyst. The panel discussed the variety of careers in modern healthcare and answered questions relating to current topics such as data, electronic records, predictive analytics, and evidence-based medicine.
Andrea Lang ’01, “Weather, Climate and in Between.” Lang gave an overview of weather and climate research and related how weather incidents in her childhood in South Texas and Northern Virginia propelled her toward a career in climate research.
David DyTang ’08, “Business & Tech: Working in Business Operations at Uber.” DyTang discussed how he came to work as a risk analytics manager for Uber and how his team uses data to combat fraud. He responded to some excellent questions on topics ranging from what was his most exciting and/or stressful project to how driverless cars are likely to affect the type and frequency of fraudulent transactions.
Dr. Ryan Landoll ’03, “To Integration and Beyond: Advances in Primary Care Behavioral Health.” Dr. Landoll gave a dynamic presentation focusing on how to integrate mental health care into primary care and on the special healthcare issues of military families. He also shared career advice for students interested in healthcare.
Bryan Guido Hassin ’97, “Using Tech Entrepreneurship to Change the World.” Hassin, who founded and led six start-ups and was “Entrepreneur in Residence” at alma mater Rice University, had students think hard about what defines entrepreneurship. He emphasized themes of empowerment and increasing societal good. “In a capitalist world, entrepreneurship is the tool for effecting change,” he said.
Samantha Zeitlin ’93, Brenna Darroch ’11, and Leslie Kim ’06, “Women Who Code.” Zeitlin, whose background is in cell and molecular biology and biochemistry, learned to code online and is now a Product Hacker at Yahoo! Darroch, a history major, is now learning to code at Ada Developers Academy, a non-profit developer training program for women and people of non-binary gender. Kim worked in film, stand-up comedy, real estate and teaching before studying programming. She is a software developer at a start-up. The panel discussed how they pursued careers in programming after starting off on very different paths.
Joey Bouchard ’10, “Welcome to Gotham.” Bouchard (right) demonstrated Palantir’s core platforms and talked about some of his most interesting work solving difficult problems by gathering, analyzing, and displaying data in useful ways. He gave some excellent general career pointers: Get life experience, not just work experience; get out and see problems in the field; create a GitHub account and do hackathons; and read The Economist (or Economist Espresso).
David Hish ’91, “Designing an Electronic Home.” Hish (at right in photo) and his husband, Adam Keplinger, described the unique design, materials, and automated systems of their nearly completed home, built following a 14-year planning process. With a box in the middle of the bedroom just for sleeping, geothermal radiant flooring for both heating and cooling, and smart HVAC and electronics systems that adjust everything automatically, including turning down the HVAC to limit sounds when the audio speakers are engaged, this home takes “custom” to a new level.
Also on the program were:
Moira Poje ’11, “Earth Wizardry and Treasure Hunting: Working as a Field Geophysicist.” Have you wanted to do science, but work outside? In electromagnetic geophysics we measure properties of rocks to find metals, nonmetals, water, and geothermal resources.
Josephine Fu ’03, “STEM iIs More than Hard Science: the Soft Skills of Game Development.” “Game Developer” seems like a job title fit only for programmers, but it’s an emerging field that needs artists, modelers, managers, and marketers, and other STEM-adjacent skills that help gamedev.
Matthew Appler ’91, “A Driving Force for Change: History’s Impact on Tomorrow’s Security.” We explore the success and failure of various industries over the past century and the critical moments that defined security for years to come.
John Myers ’89, “Careers in the Marine Industry with Emphasis on Naval Architecture.” A discussion of the rewarding and sophisticated work and diverse opportunities in the marine industry.
Rahul Singh ’00, “Software Algebra.” Singh, founder of Anant Corporation, and a colleague, discuss best practices in software development, including using the tools best suited to a particular problem and avoiding unnecessarily re-inventing the wheel. Singh also spoke at last year’s tjSTAR (see Aug 2016 issue).
Dr. Kevin Gormley ’95, “Applying Data Science and Visualization to College Selection.” This interactive presentation demonstrates how data mining can be applied to the college selection process. Visualizations include comparisons of college costs, alumni earnings, and other factors (see Aug 2016 issue).
Raj Setty ’88, “Engineering Sporting Facilities for the 21st Century.” This talk focuses on engineering details and trends in building of large-scale sports facilities.
Prof. Elizabeth Winston ’90, Parent ’21 (!), “Patent Law.” As scientists and engineers you need to know how to use the patent system to protect your ideas and innovations. This session provides a brief introduction to the patent system (see Aug 2015 issue).
Aditi Chaudry ’11, Matt Pregozen ’11, and Manhas Narra ’11, “Leveraging Coding and Statistics at Capital One.” (Exhibit in Gym 1). At Capital One, we leverage the latest technology and research in computer science, statistics, and math to drive our business and to improve the customer experience (see also HackTJ, above).
Dr. Joe Munchak ’02, “Visualizing NASA’s Science Mission Data.” (Exhibit in Gym 1). NASA science missions gather data from our planet, solar system, and universe. We showcase these data sets (e.g., hurricanes, Earth’s magnetic field) using 3D printers and virtual reality goggles.
Alumni Panel Headlines Diversity Open House
For the second year, TJ’s Diversity Open House featured a panel of alumni who came to TJ on a sunny June Saturday to share their experiences with prospective students (see also Aug 2016 issue).
Organized by PTSA Diversity Committee Chair Natalie Givans, Parent ’19, the event opened with frank comments (no pun intended) from Assistant Principal Shawn Frank, who said that while TJ’s student population is diverse, it’s far from representative of the area’s population. Frank, who came from a tough section of the Bronx and attended Brooklyn Tech, said “In many ways I know what your journey is. It’s going to be an arduous journey. It’s going to take a lot of dedication.” He urged students and parents to focus on skills and passion rather than any single end result. “It’s not where you go, it’s what you do when you get there,” he said.
Student panelists, led by TJ Diversity Initiative Chair, Angie Sohn, TJ ’19, answered audience questions about their favorite activities, amount of homework, and what parents can do to help students get into TJ.
Alumni panelists, led by Josh Silverman, TJ ’94, who for the second year is offering free test prep to needy students at his Edge Ed office in Springfield, talked about their personal journeys and gave concrete advice to the gathered students and families:
Erren Lester, TJ ’95: His mother encouraged him to attend the TJ Open House, which was all it took for him to decide that he belonged at TJ, he began. Friends told him it was a nerd school, family members warned him it would be tough, and his counselor discouraged him from applying because his chances were slim. He ignored everyone. After TJ he studied Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, worked at a start-up and at Microsoft, and was a Class of 2015 Presidential Innovation Fellow. He traces his success back to TJ.
He advised students to practice self-reflective writing. “Your passion is what’s going to get you in,” he said. “Practice writing about what you like to do, what gets you excited, what frustrates you about the world. You must also be able to talk about a STEM experience that impacted you,” he said.
Rafael Arancibia, TJ ’95: He had no idea what TJ was when his mother sent him to take the TJ test, but his mother and his Glasgow MS counselor knew what he and his twin brother needed to do to apply and they kept the boys on a schedule. Neither twin was in the AAP Program, yet both got in. “We just loved science and did the work,” he said.
Recalling his many trips to the public library as a child, he encouraged students to read magazine articles on subjects they’re interested in. “You need to look at good writing,” he instructed.
Susan Danewitz, TJ ’92: What she loved most about going to TJ was the long bus rides from Reston with intellectually curious classmates — she had attended Langston Hughes MS — and the tremendous 8th period opportunities. She took Computer Science over the summer just to get it out of the way. She always enjoyed math, however, and that passion led her to obtain a Master’s Degree in Computer Science. Her career in information technology now spans over 20 years.
Maria Vittes, TJ ’00: She and her twin brother were always interested in STEM, but it was at TJ that she started on the path to a degree in computer engineering and a career as a software developer.
Iman Abdikarim, TJ ’13: Abdikarim, right, who just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and will be working as a Clinical Research Coordinator for Children’s Hospital before applying to medical school, told attendees how she came to TJ. She was in the AAP Program at Rachel Carson MS, where “what you did was you applied to TJ.” Her parents didn’t know about test prep, and she was the only one of her friends who didn’t get in. As a freshman at Oakton HS, she didn’t feel challenged and decided she really wanted to be at TJ. Josh Silverman of Edge Ed helped her prepare for the PSAT (given to freshman applicants) and she was admitted to TJ as a froshmore. “TJ was an incredible experience for me,” she said. “I loved not being the smartest, being surrounded by brilliant kids who are interested in the same things I’m interested in.” She urged students to “show your passion and be as prepared as possible.”
Silverman: A parent of a student in one of his free test-prep classes once asked him, “Why are you doing this?” “Iman is why,” he said. “I love kids and I love teaching . . . it’s the right thing to do.”