By David Drucker
Today’s world is loaded with information. For someone with the right computer skills, that data can represent tremendous opportunities to help people.
College of Engineering and Computing senior Lara Garcia has a passion for using data to solve problems. She is applying her computer science and engineering skills to prompt social change.
Garcia’s past work includes creating maps to show researchers how best to deliver medical care to underserved communities as well as designing illustrations to show philanthropists the true impact of their investments.
“I find data so fascinating,” Garcia said. “From one perspective, it’s just a set of numbers that look tabular and stagnant. But data can represent anything. It can stand for human behavior, economies and nations.”
Garcia arrived at the university from Venezuela as an International Baccalaureate graduate. With her elective credits, she took an Honors College course taught by StartUP FIU director Bob Hacker about entrepreneurship and innovation.
“I was the student who would sit in the front of class, ask a ton of questions and get into intense philosophical debates at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays,” Garcia said.
After competing in the Hult Prize Challenge and talking with Hacker, Garcia was offered a job at StartUP FIU. She helped the innovation hub streamline internal reporting and joined the student leadership team, where she co-facilitated entrepreneurship boot camps.
“Lara is a very talented woman,” Hacker says. “She is exceptional at bringing the math and computation of computer science to practical applications for social impact.”
In her sophomore year, Garcia interned for the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary hub for research and learning. She joined the Biomechatronics Group, which was centered around delivering prosthetic and diabetic care to underserved communities in Mexico, Sierra Leone and the United States.
A variety of factors can prevent people with diabetes from receiving the care that they need, Garcia said. Poverty rates, political environments and poor public infrastructure are just some. If left untreated, diabetes and its complications can lead to lower limb amputation being required.
The MIT Media Lab was working on deploying mobile health clinics to areas in need of medical attention and prosthetics. First, they needed to know exactly where to go.
“I played a strategic role in taking all these communities, analyzing hotspots and determining what were the best places or areas to visit,” Garcia said. “I had to account for so many different facets of such an insanely complex problem.”
In another internship, Garcia applied her data skills to philanthropy. She interned with the Knight Foundation and its communities and national initiatives team. Garcia’s job was to consolidate information that the foundation had gathered over the past 50 years to create compelling visuals. These illustrations were made to both tell the story of Knight Foundation and inform future decisions.
In one project, Garcia researched the accessibility of public parks and spaces that the Knight Foundation had invested in. She used a data visualization tool to determine how many people were able to reach the entrances of their public spaces within a 20-minute walk. In her other projects, Garcia used machine learning to distill the language of the Knight Foundation’s grants down to their core purposes. She then used simplified phrases to create memorable visuals that represented the Knight Foundation’s values.
Recently, Garcia also participated in Google’s Latinx Student Leadership Summit, a day long-virtual event in which Google employees and Latino students from all over the United States discussed the highs and lows of being in the technology industry and in STEM.
At FIU, Garcia says that she enjoys taking a variety of computer science and computer engineering courses that help her get ahead. She is one of an increasing number of students at FIU’s Knight School of Computing and Information Sciences. The school has seen its number of undergraduate degrees awarded increase by 99% since 2017, booming in unison with the Miami technology industry.
“I had this really amazing course at FIU recently called Introduction to Applied Machine Learning. That was really one of the first times I was able to work on a lot of machine learning projects, both supervised and unsupervised,” Garcia said.
After graduating, Garcia hopes to join an innovative technical team with a core mission of creating meaningful impact. It’s a budding career that all began in Venezuela, where her family highlighted the importance of education.
“My mom always told me that your education is something that nobody can take away from you,” Garcia said. “I really took that to heart.”
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