By Lesley Colgan, MPFI Research Scientist
Last week was busy for Kate Maier. On top of her school midterms, she submitted her application for a National Merit Scholarship (she was named a 2022 semifinalist this past September) and celebrated her 18th birthday with family and friends.
It might be hard to imagine how Kate’s 18th year could top her 17th, but as Kate points out, “One thing is for sure, I know a lot can change in a year. A year ago, I didn’t know that I would be a published scientist and working in a neuroscience lab at MPFI.” She is confident that in the year to come, she will continue to grow and explore new opportunities.
For nearly all of us, the pandemic has been a challenging time. However, the best of us can find opportunities that emerge from the challenges. Kate credits the COVID-19 crisis for jumpstarting her research career. As many of her activities were canceled, Kate searched for things to keep her busy. She found and enrolled in an online Artificial Intelligence Bootcamp offered by FAU professor Dr. Oge Marques. Through this course, Kate recognized the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to solve real-world problems, particularly amid a pandemic.
When Kate expressed an interest in growing her machine-learning skills in the context of applied problems, Dr. Marques took her on as a mentee. A year later, Kate is the first author of a scientific paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. Her work addresses how a photograph’s lighting and quality affect the accuracy of AI skin cancer diagnosis in telehealth applications.
Publishing a scientific article as a first author is a feat most scientists don’t accomplish until well into their Ph.D. training. As a student at FAU high school in partnership with Max Planck Academy, Kate had a solid educational background in the research process that helped prepare her to succeed. The opportunity to work with Dr. Marques on a real-world problem provided immense motivation. Kate is a problem solver, and she was hooked.
Homeschooled through grade 8, a lot of her early science exposure was hands-on, visiting science museums and nature centers or gathering specimens to investigate under her microscope. As Kate recalls, “I really enjoyed having the flexibility to explore my passions without the limitations of time, place, achievement, or failure.” Kate credits this approach for giving her the freedom to delve into whatever sparked her imagination. In middle school, she realized that programming did just that. She joined her local Girls Who Code club, took university-level computer science courses at the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science (IMACS), and volunteered with CoderDojo on Saturday mornings to share her enthusiasm for programming with younger students. It didn’t take Kate long to understand that coding could be applied to solve many different problems. She used her skills to lead the Cane Institute’s Robot Drone League team to a first-place victory and helped her FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team qualify as Mission Mayhem Finalists. Last year, Kate turned her focus to a new problem: understanding the brain.
Through the Max Planck Honors Program, Kate was introduced and given access to Neuroscience research at MPFI. She earned a Magar Data Science Fellowship, which provided funding to support her work in the lab of scientific director Dr. David Fitzpatrick. Kate used her programming skills and AI to analyze and interpret neuroscience data more efficiently. “The research that I do at Max Planck allows me to weave all of my passions together,” she said.
Kate’s 18th year is shaping up to be as exciting as her 17th. She will continue to tackle problems in neuroscience, working with MPFI Research Group Leader Dr. Salil Bidaye, and will graduate high school this Spring. In 2023, she will graduate from FAU Honors College and the Max Planck Honors Program with a Computational Neuroscience major that, like her work at MPFI, combines her passions. The only challenge? FAU doesn’t have a Computational Neuroscience major. Well, Kate is working with leadership at FAU Honors College and Max Planck Academy to develop one. If you ask Kate about her long-term career goals, she has an open mind. “Who knows what the next few years will bring?” One thing is for sure- she will be solving problems.