Student Spotlight: Cathy Chen

Wednesday, Sep 27, 2017
by Melissa Moss

Cathy Chen remembers wondering, as a freshman, how her interests in applied math, algorithms, and programming would ever come together.  “I’d say the ‘a-ha!’ moments came during my sophomore year,” she recalls. “I took a cognitive neuroscience class taught by Professor Kenneth Norman and loved it. The more classes I took, the more I realized that there's a lot of use for statistics and machine learning (SML) in analyzing neuroscience data—and tons of inspirations between neuroscience and machine learning.”

Cathy Chen

“That realization was extraordinarily exciting for me,” explains Chen, now a senior and co-president of the Princeton Data Science club.

“I can use the SML/applied math methods I like working with and also study questions about how people think, learn, and remember.”

Through her involvement in the Undergraduate Certificate Program and poster sessions, Chen says she discovered the huge range of disciplines where SML can play a role in research. “I had the opportunity to take courses with SML-affiliated faculty in sociology, CS, neuroscience, probability, and stats, and I've spoken to other students who've used SML in politics, electrical engineering, and more.”  What impresses Chen about the certificate program is how it “allows both breadth and rigor in its coursework.”

“The courses I’ve taken for the certificate program are among my favorites of my college career,” she adds. “Classes like Machine Learning and AI taught by Professors Elad Hazan and Sanjeev Arora, and Probability and Stochastic Systems with Professor Ramon von Handel are flexible enough to be accessible to students working in many different disciplines. And the independent work you do in the program lets you use these beautiful methods you learn about in classes and apply them to an area you’re personally interested in.”  

As she sends out applications to graduate schools and fellowships, Chen—a violinist who once dreamed of a performance career—ponders the advice she’d give incoming freshmen with an interest in computer science. “I would very strongly encourage students to explore the SML certificate program and join Princeton Data Science,” she says. The club motto “Break things, make things, analyze things” hints at the excitement members find in the creative possibilities of data science.

What does Chen envision for her future? “I would love to do research at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and SML,” she says. “But if I don't end up there right after college, I’ve had a lot of fun working on problems and working with people at tech internships I’ve had, so I could also see myself working in industry for a few years.”