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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

Melisa Lin, founder and CEO of Nommery, talks to FEM Tech

Nommery team

Melisa Lin, founder and CEO of restaurant meet-up site Nommery, chatted with FEM Tech earlier this month about her journey from Berkeley student to owner of one of the most promising start-ups in the industry. 

Nommery has its roots in SF Foodies, the other meet-up community Lin started years ago, back when she worked at Veritable Vegetable, the country’s oldest organic produce distributor.

“There was a point when I was thinking, should I be trying to advance my career in the food industry and progress further there, or can I build something out of this community that is exploding,” Lin said. The group was holding 100 events a month, and filled entire restaurants on some nights.

But before Veritable and SF Foodies, Lin was a student at Berkeley studying mostly, well, food: besides selling her own, homemade granola, leading organic gardening at People’s Park and basically majoring in food (B.S. In Conservation and Resource Studies with a focus on Sustainable Food Business), she also helped found the Student Food Collective, the vegan food-haven located on Bancroft.

A veritable violinist (she’s performed on tour in Europe with the Stanford symphony and at the Davis Symphony Hall in San Francisco) Lin says her love of music taught her the discipline needed to get Nommery off the ground.

“As a performer, you learn how to present yourself in front of a large audience, learn how to command, learn how to project your voice.” This skill has invariably helped in talking to big names, like, for instance, the CTO of Coffee Meets Bagel, a user of and mentor to Nommery.

People First, Company Last

Nommery sprouted in a backwards way, launching with a consumer base already established, with little question as to its viability.

“Having a community first, and understanding what they want and building it for them makes it worth it, because you’re saving time, you’re saving money on developing. It just seems like a no brainer to me.”

Lin says there are three things to have established before looking for funding: the minimal viable product (your website), sales and marketing. Sales will prove the viability of your product, which will particularly capture venture capitalists’ interest.

Logging onto Nommery, there are a handful of restaurant meet-ups created by different hosts at different price points. The cheapest meal is a non-inclusive RSVP of $5; the higher priced reservations can climb up to $300, but that includes everything from appetizers to the tip.

She describes the mood at restaurant meet-ups as “warm, open, excited.” The meet-ups have attracted many food business executives from companies like CISCO, Walmart and OpenTable.

“I’m just kind of awestruck, still,” Lin says. “To go to an event and dine with someone, and not have them mention who they are, and then go on LinkedIn later and see that they’re the VP of eCommerce at Walmart, is kind of mindboggling. It’s amazing how down to earth they all are and how humble they all are.”

Nommery has plans to expand into Chicago, New York and Los Angeles as well as overseas in late 2016.

Kanda’s Calling: UX and web designer Michi Kanda talks career with FEM Tech

Michi KandaWalking into Cafe Milano on a Tuesday evening in November, Michi Kanda, a user experience and web developer for Tokyo-based startup Progate, a sort of Codeacademy of the East, wears a sweater advertising her company, a skirt that defies the cold weather settling into Berkeley, and black oxford platforms, a nod to her home country’s eclectic style. She’s with a friend, and as soon as I introduce myself, she walks off to buy a coffee.

Once we settle into our seats, I ask her how Berkeley has been in the first 30 minute she’s spent here since getting off BART. She arrived from San Jose, where she participated as a finalist in Battlehack, a hackathon run by Paypal. She and her teammates won first place in Tokyo in June for talk’n’pick, a video summarization app that processes out less important footage. The prize included free round-trip airfare and a hotel stay in San Jose, plus an ax that glows with blue light (the theme of the competition was Tron). “So far so good,” she says.

Kanda, 25, started coding only two years ago while interning at Life is Tech, an organization that teaches high school kids how to code in Japan. There she learned HTML and Ruby on Rails among other languages. Up until now, her roles have included co-founding two start-ups and landing her current job as a designer at Progate, a website that teaches the public to code and program.

“The best part is that I get to work with the people I admire and also [do the] things that I care about,” Kanda says. “Like helping people who want to code.”

Generally, there are a lot of tasks a UX designer could specialize in. For Kanda, day to day consists of site traffic analysis and making user interfaces, or UI, for new products. Kanda found her interest in coding alone; in school, she wasn’t encouraged by her parents or teachers to pursue a STEM major.

“I wish my parents or a teacher had encouraged me to explore a STEM field, but they never did,” she says. “From elementary school, there are classes for girls. You have to know how to cook, how to make clothes. But I think boys don’t really have to do that.”

She says that girls studying Computer Science at universities in Japan aren’t interested in engineering degrees; they are mostly concerned with becoming “good” wives. Through Progate, she hopes to encourage women towards careers in technology.

Kanda advises to start small when coding for the first time, learning HTML, CSS and the basics of website development. Then move on to harder languages like JavaScript.

“I think when you first start programming, it’s good to have things you actually want to build before. It can be a simple one page website. It’s very important to start small.”

We can all take a cue from Kanda’s book–start small, dream big.

Michi Kanda presented to FEM Tech in November about her career.