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Interview with Lucas Chu

Updated: Sep 9, 2020


đź“· Lucas Chu

Journalist: Haleema Ahmed


Haleema: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to SciSection. I'm Haleema, your journalist for this week and today we are delighted to have Lucas Chu. Lucas is a sophomore at Harvard University and is most notably the founder of the Coronavirus Visualization Team. Welcome, Lucas!


Lucas: Thank you, and thanks for having me.


Haleema: So to get started, could you give us an overview of your background and the type of studies that you're pursuing at university? Sure.


Lucas: Sure, so I was born in Germany to Taiwanese parents, moved to New York when I was five. I went to an international school, then public school, then Catholic school, and now at Harvard. I originally applied and wanted to do computer science with the idea that I wanted to use artificial intelligence to fight climate change. So use one existential problem to fight another. And I found I didn't really like computer science too much, really the programming. But it is interesting. But now, I'm still deciding what major I'm going to do and currently thinking between Economic, Statistics and the History of Science.


Haleema: That's super duper interesting. And so the Coronavirus Visualization Team is an organization that you've created and as somebody who has been a part of that, I've really been able to appreciate the type of work that you're doing. For our listeners tuning in, who could be interested in it, what is CVT exactly?


Lucas: Yeah, so the Coronavirus Visualization Team is student based so completely student run, led and organized - intercollegiate so international, global, available, inclusive organization to try to fight the “infodemic”.


Lucas: So what this means is trying to use public information and private information from our partners to visualize Coronavirus or visualize the effects of the pandemic so that we can get all this information out to the people where they might not see this niche - understanding this niche data or they might be getting information from other mainstream media sources, which, with their own visualizations, don't necessarily represent a whole objective truth just because visualization is an art and no matter how you do it, there's always going to be bias.

Lucas: So as you know, students, we can be independent and learn and really try to find another objective voice with all the you know visualizations that are currently being published all the time.


Haleema: So you mentioned that as students and kind of producing this work as students, there's less bias. How do you try to approach that when a lot of news companies, for example, they have their individual bias trying to represent their agendas, for example? So with CVT, what do you think is different about it that makes it less biased compared to others?


Lucas: Well, first, we are very, truly data first. So we're going to look at the context of where we are getting the data so the source. And we're also very question centric, seeing what really is the impetus for making this visualization, what sort of value are we providing? And by looking at the context of what we're trying to provide, we're trying to one make it simple so that people can understand, but at the same time incorporating as much of the original data as possible with caveats. So with our descriptors and our understanding of what is the data missing and what is it actually incorporating. And the way we can do that is, of course, having multiple guidelines and sets of eyes at every step of the process.


Haleema: That's definitely really interesting. And I guess when the pandemic started and a lot of undergrads were kind of struggling with all of the sudden changes - at that kind of really weird time, what pushed and kind of inspired you to create this organization?


Lucas: Yeah, so as far as stories go, it's pretty innocuous. Basically, I was in an MIT group chat and someone was saying, “Hey, I have Georgia coronavirus data. Does anyone have experience with all of these, you know, data analysis tools?” I didn't, but I was interested. So I downloaded Tableau for the first time. I found that one, this data wasn't available online, Two, was really easy and looked really cool. So I realized that a lot of my friends also had an interest in this - I wanted to connect and learn more, so I figured I could have a much larger impact if I brought people together rather than just going off by myself and spamming out graphics.


Haleema: And for anybody listening in, Tableau is a really great place to start with data viz. I know that’s where I started and it's super duper easy to learn how to do. And it creates some really, really cool things. And I guess moving back into CVT, you basically had a really, really large outreach with researchers pouring in from basically like every continent. Why do you think the organization has had such a global appeal and how insightful has it been conducting research from locations that are super duper different?


Lucas: I think we're really lucky to be in this time that now, you know, University of Melbourne, Manipal Institute of Technology, (inaudible) it is there all universities that normally are thousands of miles away, but now they're just the timezones, in a way, it's just, you know, message away. Everybody is just as close to each other as pretty much almost anyone. So we are so globally available because, you know, Slack, Zoom, Discord, Tableau, all these tools we're using aren't location specific - it's all agnostic to that. So that means, you know, if you can speak English, you can get involved and you don't even need to. Of course, we have guides and information in tons of different languages. And I think we have such global appeal because Coronaviruses is such a global problem and then visualisations is also very understandable. And any insights we've gotten from doing it internationally is just how, one, how different the students are and also how, you know, how similar we are.We still like the same foods, you know, continents apart. We still waste time on the same things. And in terms of research, it's also really cool just seeing how committed people can be to doing volunteer research with people that they've never met before and probably never will in person.


Haleema: And you mentioned research, and I find that just in my own experience, research positions are normally dominated by upper university students, graduate students, that kind of thing. So what value have you seen providing younger students, sometimes in high school, with that kind of opportunity?


Lucas: To a lot of the members of our team, providing high schoolers and underclassmen with these research opportunities is our biggest, you know, I guess unique to our biggest value add. And I think by doing so, we're opening up so much opportunity for the world to see all of these ideas, because normally they are pretty much ignored just because we assume they're not at that level yet. And I think that's the wrong way of going about it, because there's so much energy and so much enthusiasm for trying to figure out these questions, which are just as relevant, the questions that older students might be asking. So the most important perspectives are generally the ones that we're forgetting, in this case, by involving younger students, we can really take advantage of all this wholesomeness and create mentoring opportunities for the students and researchers helping them and in the same vein, provide a great opportunity to do something, online while quarantine, for younger students.


Haleema: With some of the mentorship that I guess CVT is providing for a lot of underclassmen, have you been able to see, like some of them evolve and improve during the time that they've been in CVT and see their passions and their skills really blossom?


Lucas: Yeah definitely, for example, you know, I didn't know how to do any data visualization when I started and a lot of people were in the same boat but we had a course startup, we have seminars with, you know, experts at the top of their fields. Uh, and then for individual students in the mentoring programs, we've been making it more and more formal, so offering more and more opportunities. And we've seen students go from, you know, not being able to code, to doing some rigorous statistical research at Harvard university where it was otherwise, this wouldn't have been possible even for, you know, Harvard upperclassmen students. So I think, you know, this progression that we're doing is just another proof that now we should try to give these opportunities to as many people that we can


Haleema: Definitely and a lot of the projects in CVT are about topics that normally aren't covered in mainstream news. So could you tell us a little bit about the projects that are pursued in CVT and the type of impact that they aim to reach?


Lucas: Yeah, so our summer cohort is just finishing and really all the projects, they really run through so many different topics, so it really runs the gamut. So we can have pretty straightforward projects like seeing what are factors that we need to consider to avoid a COVID-19 economic depression, to how can we try to increase blood donations by looking at Twitter tweets to see what are factors that prevent, you know, young or diverse people from donating and some of the ones that have been particularly ignored say by mainstream media are COVID-19 and climate change, looking how xenophobia online has and continues to change and in the beginning there was some coverage. We're also doing some fact checking work, for example, fact checking the EPA. We have done some work on niche industries as well as larger ones. So looking at the hospitality industry - looking at how news has been effective for of course misinformation. And then sometimes even specific areas. I know this isn't that niche, but New York City and South Korea.


Haleema: So with all of these projects and the research that you're pursuing with it and the data viz that you're getting from it, after you kind of complete all of that, where does this information go and how does it actually impact the public?


Lucas: So, most of the visualizations actually go to our partners because we have nondisclosure agreements or MLUs with them. But then we've been also been posting a lot of visualizations on Join CVT and covisaulize - so those are both Instagram accounts where we're trying to educate, you know, again, sort of ourselves. So getting students to educate themselves and their communities online. And then also of course we have a website with a mailing list and we're trying to continue to post on online forums, anything from Discord to Reddit, to a tableoid itself.


Haleema: And I guess with the pandemic, there's like no end in sight really. Where do you see CVT headed cause you mentioned that the summer sohort is concluding a lot of the projects concluded, where do you see where the rest of it is going?


Lucas: Yeah, so we in collaboration and partnership with a few other organizations like Decipher and Simply Neuroscience have put together online research experiences for undergraduates. So, this is another research program where it's independent and we're pairing applicants to a lot of PIs across the nation and trying to of course make it international. And that's what we're trying to, you know, support for academic research. Then when it comes to our informal research projects, a lot of them are continuing like the blood donations project. And so we see a great extracurricular for students in the fall. And then, we've also expanded to a greater umbrella organization called the Erevna, which is Greek for research. And then within that, we have a couple initiatives, which they no longer relate just to Coronavirus or visualization, but again, more opportunities for students to educate themselves and their communities. So you can check that out by at (inaudible) slash Erevna initiatives. So for example, we have a Coronavirus Visualization Community, we just had a hackathon, we're going to have a pandemic policy thon -so a competition where students can propose policy solutions to a lot of local problems. We have an Intercollegiate Discord to support all these students. We have an educational nonprofit coalition to try to share all these resources that are now online, that have always been online, to high schoolers applying to college, and really anyone who's currently in school K through eight, grad students too, and Panel 2 the People which aims to host conversations worth having on a lot of these topics.


Haleema: And I know that, something that's coming up recently is a gap year program, or like a gap year research program. Could you tell us a little bit about that?


Lucas: Yeah, so that fits into the online RU program and where we're getting funding from alumni and different institutions or students to do research assistant work. And then for those that aren't interested in research, we're also pairing them up with a lot of the organizations that we're, uh we currently have relationships with to try to, of course, get busy and have a real impact, over the semester


Haleema: And youth organizations are no novelty these days. So what is your advice to undergraduates who want to create an initiative that not only is just, you know, present on social media, but has an actual and real impact in the world?


Lucas: So for the first part of that, just creating initiative, just do it right.


Lucas: The worst thing that can happen is you can fail and I think if you do the right steps, it's very easy to grow up quickly. So in order to utilize all this interest, you need to make sure that what people are working on tie really closely to whatever your mission is and that you ultimately see what people you are impacting.

Lucas: So in a sense, that's like looking at market research to see who exactly do you want involved and who do you want them to interact with and what sort of systems are you using. So more pragmatically speaking, seeing how much time you can put into actually changing people's lives rather than making an organization.


Haleema: And on that note, thank you so much Lucas for joining us today, be sure to look into CVT,the social medias and consider joining the community because you’d be able to benefit a lot from it. Thank you so much for joining us today, Lucas.


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