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When Beatrice Jin won an internship at Caltech, she applied her key talents in math, science, art, and design—and garnered much more.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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The job of a Caltech visualization intern entailed creating new methods of data visualization for scientific research, including cybersecurity, the Mars rover, and 3D plant segmentation.
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“I was hired as a computer scientist and assigned to lead the project on 3D plant segmentation. They partitioned us so that we would develop and use skills that we were least familiar with.”
Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

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“What if scientists could virtually dig into a flower and look up and down the stem, using their hands? It didn’t end up being viable, but we needed to deem the ideas impossible.”
Beatrice Jin
Beatrice Jin

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Although Jin doesn’t quite know what career her future holds, she does know this: “What’s most important is whatever that may be, that it be done with criticality and consciousness.”
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank
Beatrice Jin; Dave Burbank

Visualizing Science—a Caltech Internship

by Molly Karr ’18

As a math major with a concentration in computer science, one might assume that on paper, Beatrice Jin ’18, would be more inclined to pursue purely technical fields rather than the humanities. Jin, however, who hails from the suburbs of Chicago, has had a consistent passion for art and visual design in addition to math and science.

“I’ve always been a reluctant math major. I’ve found that the intersection between coding, which is what I actually ended up being interested in at Cornell, and design is critically more applicable to my education,” says Jin, who has always found a way to add her passion for art into her work life.

When Jin worked as an intern for the Boston Transportation Department during the summer of 2016, she found a way to produce an artistic and useful dashboard that visualized the state of transportation metrics throughout the Boston region.

At Caltech

During the summer of 2017, Jin's skills were put to the test as she combined her passions in a competitively selective internship in Pasadena, California as a Caltech visualization intern. The program, a collaboration between the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, and ArtCenter College of Design, aims to create new methods for data visualization over a range of scientific research.

“We were working for one of the highest institutions of scientific knowledge. Everyone in the program was smart and uniquely experienced, and we spent every week on a different iteration,” says Jin.

Teams consisting of five undergraduate students—three computer scientists and two designers—were set to work on making new visuals for cybersecurity, the Mars rover, and three-dimensional plant segmentation.

“I was hired as a computer scientist and assigned to lead the project on 3D plant segmentation. They partitioned us so that we would develop and use skills that we were least familiar with,” says Jin.

Scientific Visualization

There are two types of visualization methods: information and scientific. Information visualization is an abstracted representation of data, most commonly seen in bar charts and scatterplots. In contrast, the unique aspect of scientific visualization is that there is no level of abstraction. No transformation of numbers to images or other visual encoding can occur. Jin explains that the data itself is visualization.

“I created an interface that clearly displayed and interacted with 3D photos of plants’ stem cells for other scientists. I couldn’t map the data into a graphic trend or reorganize aggregated numbers into shapes in which I had previous experience,” Jin says. “Instead, I had to find a way to orient and cue the photos in a way that would aid in others’ understanding and re-segmenting them.”

In order to work on her project, Jin faced the challenging task of learning a new API (application program interface) called three.js. For those who don’t know much about the computer world, the program is a JavaScript library that allows its user to program in 3D. “It was difficult at first. I combed through an old code interface that another programmer had previously built. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the lab and its patience while I learned to program in 3D,” says Jin.

The internship fostered daily creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Jin and her team members were encouraged to interview scientists about current technological issues, and produce outlandish ideas about how to solve them. “One idea was to use virtual reality to solve 3D plant segmentation. What if scientists could virtually dig into a flower and look up and down the stem, using their hands? It didn’t end up being viable, but we needed to deem the ideas impossible,” says Jin.

“Working alone meant that I could occupy all roles and positions of power in one project. Stakes had mostly personal repercussions. This changed when I had to work intimately with a team.”

Besides All That Data Visualization

The structure of the team itself posed another learning curve for Jin, who was used to working independently. “Working alone meant that I could occupy all roles and positions of power in one project. Stakes had mostly personal repercussions. This changed when I had to work intimately with a team,” explains Jin. “Coordinating with people with different skill sets, academic and professional priorities, and creative ideologies was challenging. The experience helped me understand and practice conflict resolution and interpersonal dialogue.”

One valuable aspect to her experience was that it accelerated Jin’s thoughts about where she would want to work in the future. “I don’t know what my future holds in terms of the work I can do, but I care about who and what I do it for. I’m not sure if I can contribute the most to an institution that already has hyperconcentrated resources and intel. While I admire knowledge production, I also value the redistribution of resources, accessibility to information, and education and action about the structures that produce inequality and climate change,” Jin stresses.

Back at Cornell

When she isn’t working on challenging data visualization tasks or classroom problem sets, Jin finds the time to compete in the occasional badminton tournament, work for the Office of the Vice Provost for Research’s Cornell Research website, and stay active in the Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA) at Cornell.

“The APAA is working on expanding ethnic and gender studies on and off campus. We’re working on a project with Asian restaurants to disseminate information about DACA and immigrant rights,” explains Jin.

Jin has worked for the Cornell Research website—the very one you’re reading this article on—since before its launch at the end of 2014. From freshman to senior year, Jin has digitally illustrated artwork for features that were otherwise difficult to photograph or visualize. Her work is pivotal to the website. “For instance, there's no obvious, beautiful way to visualize protein folding, but my job would be to abstract and beautify that concept,” Jin explains.

Jin’s experience during the summer of 2017, coupled with the skills and knowledge she has learned through clubs, work, and classes at Cornell, has helped her to build the bridge between undergraduate life and the working world. “I’m confident that there are resources and support to learn whatever I need to learn as work demands,” says Jin. “What’s most important is whatever that may be, that it be done with criticality and consciousness.”