Amazon-Columbia SURE students meet with Alexa AI VP


Being successful in STEM fields requires talent and hard work. It also requires access to the kind of thoughtful mentoring that enables researchers to make use of their talents.

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With the creation of the Columbia-Amazon Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) with a focus on undergraduate students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM, Columbia and Amazon are extending their collaboration.

With that in mind, Columbia Engineering joined with Amazon last year to launch the Columbia-Amazon Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program, a research and professional development program.

The program brings participants from historically underrepresented backgrounds in all STEM fields to the Columbia Engineering campus and Amazon facilities. Those students engage with leaders in industry and academia while working alongside top researchers in artificial intelligence, biomedical engineering, material science, computational science, and engineering to confront challenges in medicine, climate, sustainability, business, and other areas.

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After SURE’s initial offering exceeded expectations, Columbia Engineering and Amazon decided to expand the program for 2022, nearly doubling the number of participants and extending the run of the program at Columbia. Amazon also established similar multi-year SURE program commitments with two other top-tier universities, Georgia Tech and the University of Southern California.

“It has been so gratifying to see the impact of the program we designed with Amazon,” said Helen H. Lu, senior vice dean of faculty affairs and advancement at Columbia Engineering, who co-leads the Columbia activities of the SURE program. “Our hope is that the work we’re doing will continue to help open new pathways for the next generation of STEM leaders.”

Prem Natarajan took questions from SURE students, sharing his thoughts around navigating the research and career landscapes. Students engaged in a lively discussion on key concepts regarding the future of artificial intelligence, such as ethics and generalizable AI.

Lu recently hosted a visit by Prem Natarajan, Alexa AI vice president of natural understanding. SURE students sat down with Natarajan for a Q&A session that occurred alongside a day-long event series that included a research showcase presented by the Amazon-supported Columbia Center of Artificial Intelligence Technology (CAIT).

Natarajan took questions from the 47 SURE students participating in this year’s program, sharing his thoughts around navigating the research and career landscapes.

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Students heard first-hand about the kinds of traits and skills C-suite executives prize most and how to navigate a path from academia to industry. They also engaged in a lively discussion on key concepts regarding the future of artificial intelligence, such as ethics and generalizable AI.

“The opportunity for cohort students to hear from and speak with Prem Natarajan is exactly the kind of opportunity that first compelled me to apply to the SURE program — the emphasis on the collaboration between academia and industry,” said Jay Easter, a SURE fellow working in the lab of Simon Billinge, professor of materials science and applied physics and applied mathematics. “As someone interested in pursuing both post-baccalaureate education and entrepreneurial interests, having the chance to discuss the foundations of true leadership and its significance in achieving success with someone of Prem’s stature is incomparable.”

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“It was delightful and energizing to meet the 2022 SURE Fellows, and to experience firsthand their curiosity and passion for science and engineering,” Natarajan said. “Their diverse backgrounds and experiences will enrich the STEM field globally. We are proud to support this program in partnership with Columbia Engineering. I can’t wait to see the impact that these students will have in their careers.”

One month into this year’s SURE program, students have already attended a range of events, from a workshop on research presentation how-tos and a group luncheon in Central Park to seminars on optimizing LinkedIn profiles and job-searching techniques. Upcoming events include recurring “pair and share” sessions, where students and mentors meet as a group to discuss learnings, ask candid questions, and build community; and a seminar on Pathways in Graduate Education featuring faculty and graduate admissions officers from Columbia Engineering.

“My favorite part about the SURE program is the mix of programming we have available to us,” said Jade Carter, a fellow working in the Robotics And Rehabilitation (RoAR) Lab lab of Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering and rehabilitation medicine. “Not only am I able to engage in cutting-edge research at a distinguished university like Columbia, but I’m also able to enhance my interdisciplinary skills, expand my professional network and build relationships with a diverse group of SURE students which will last a lifetime.”

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