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Replacing a Camera with a Computer: Computational Imaging with Professor Laura Walker

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How can we capture the world based on how light interacts? On November 1st, Professor Laura Walker spoke at Femtech Talk about how computational imaging does this. Computational imaging is a multidisciplinary field that blurs the lines of electrical engineering, computer science, and biology. It focuses on the physics of how light propagates, and the algorithms that can be developed for optimization.

The Computer as a Lens

But what exactly is computational imaging? What kind of problems can be solved in the field? Walker describes computational imaging as hardware and software working together. Optics, Walker says, is trying to design lenses in a camera so that they take better pictures. But computational imaging is “rethinking how we make this camera in the first place”! Traditional imaging systems are boring. “Can computers do the job of lenses?”, she proposes to her audience.

More specifically, computational imaging focuses on how to design the image system, given sensors and an object. The design process is like art, Walker explains. The design must be practical, cheap, and efficient, so computational imagers must consider how to redesign hardware for easy computation. They also must be familiar both with optics and signal processing to accomplish this.

Applying Computational Imaging to the Real World

The applications of computational imaging are numerous and varied. Walker introduces the Light Field camera, one such application. This camera collects data in a different way than a normal camera, so that you can change the focus of a picture from the background to the foreground after you’ve taken it! Walker explains that the rays hitting the sensor can be computationally back traced to accomplish the digital refocusing.

Another application is Computational phase imaging, an application of computational imaging that essentially gets a map of surface shape and the density of cells. It helps scientists see which cells are transparent, and is therefore useful for disease diagnosis. In malaria, for example, it allows us to look for an infected cell among tens of thousands of red blood cells!

Getting into Research as an Undergrad

And how might someone get involved in computational imaging? Walker mentions she got involved in optics quite randomly; she emailed a bunch of CS professors and happened to get a position in optics! She also says that she did a lot of work in signal processing as an undergrad. Most importantly, the Berkeley Center of Computational Imaging is expanding! She greatly encourages undergrads to get involved in research; in computational imaging, there are both building and coding projects for undergrads to work on.

Walker also emphasizes the importance of having diversity in technology, and of always checking your biases. She encourages her audience: “Be bold. Be resilient. This is wonderful place to work in, sometimes not the best culture and environment, but you can get around that and be happy.”

Written by Michelle Verghese

Intern Insider: UX/UI design At Tesla

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Being a design intern at Tesla isn’t what you might think.

“I wasn’t working on the car,” said Michelle Chan, a Summer User Interface and User Experience design intern at the Palo Alto-based company. “I think that’s what a lot of people think when they think of Tesla, but there are a lot of things beyond the car that people can work on.”

Instead, Michelle worked on internal and enterprise tools, including a wire harness for car seats. (Details on projects were kept hush-hush.)

A Cognitive Science major at UC Berkeley, Michelle is a self-taught UX/UI designer with full stack coding capabilities. As she continues her internship into the Fall semester, Michelle muses on work-life balance, having fun on the job and self-driving cars.

What’s it like interning at Tesla? What’s the culture like?

I actually love working for Tesla. It was the first time in my life that I was actually excited to wake up in the morning to go to work. At first, I had a hard time adjusting to the pace, because they do move really quickly, and they do work long hours. But after immersing myself in the work and really loving what I was doing the long hours didn’t seem long after all. Also, the vibe in the company, everyone is extremely motivated to do what they do. That also inspires and encourages me to keep moving forward with the work.

What did you learn?

My design skills shot up exponentially just being around amazing designers. I also learned how to better balance work and life. A lot of people, especially in Silicon Valley, all they do is work work work. I actually felt pretty horrible in the beginning when I didn’t have a good balance. But after realizing that, I was significantly happier.

How did your CogSci major help you in the internship?

It didn’t really help, to be honest. Unless you’re going to a design school, it’s difficult to learn what design is without doing it. There was one other design intern, and she went to school strictly for art or design related things. As someone who wasn’t, there’s more of a learning curve since you don’t have a teacher. You’re not learning from a particular someone, you’re learning it with yourself.

How did your coding experience help you?

It definitely helped me after I was done designing something. I actually got to work with a developer. It definitely helped sort of knowing a language, it helped to communicate to [the developer] about how to bring the idea to life. I could speak more technically with him.

What do you recommend for someone trying to intern?

Besides actually learning to do design, I think one of the most important things is socializing with other people, networking. I think meeting new people will go a long way for you. I think that’s how most people land jobs. Socializing organically, not necessarily assertively networking.

Have fun, don’t take it too seriously. Don’t be afraid to ask questions while you’re interning. A lot of people when they’re first-time interning […] they may be afraid to ask questions and think that [their mentor or manager] is so busy, but in reality their humans as well, they really don’t mind if you ask a question. That would probably help work a lot faster.

Finally, what’s your opinion on self-driving cars?

I think it’s the future. Either the future is in the long run completely [but] at least in the short run it’ll be a hybrid of self-driving.

Doreen Bloch: consumer plus intelligence equals Poshly

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The gregarious Doreen Bloch, member of Forbes best-of-the-best 30 under 30 list and CEO of consumer intelligence company Poshly, strutted her business savvy last week at FEM Tech.

The Palo Alto native studied at UC Berkeley from 2006-2010, graduated a semester early, and moved to New York City where she worked at finance company Second Market. It was at this time, during a visit to a local drug store, that inspiration for Poshly struck.

“One of my most meaningful inspirations for creating Poshly stemmed from my personal vexation over the cosmetics shopping experience never feeling quite personalized enough — I wanted a more data-driven way to shop,” Bloch said over e-mail. “I figured if I could gather data from a diverse set of individuals, it would be possible to correlate product preferences in a more robust way.”

Shortly after this, Bloch put up a website where people could share data about themselves in exchange for prizes. She had $85 in her bank account when the first investors rolled in. After that she raised $2 million.

“It may not be easy, but creating your own company is possible.”

Poshly is a data mine field, providing consumer information to companies (think Eucerin, Benefit cosmetics, InStyle), which it extracts through entry-question giveaways on its website. Members win all sorts of things, like the gloves Rhianna wore in her Riri perfume ad, jewelrey, and countless beauty products. Users enter these contests by completing a survey about their consumer habits, and can take as many surveys to enter as many times as they want.

Bloch talked about the gender gap in the business, noting the game women have to play with venture capitalists to raise funding. She also talked about the low percentage of female CEO’s, which currently rests at 4.6 percent for Fortune 500 companies.

“It is important to me now to show others, especially fellow young women who simply don’t have enough role models, that it can be done,” she said over e-mail. “It may not be easy, but creating your own company is possible.”