PKG Social Impact Internships: Brandon (Si Liang) Lei (’24)
Hello everyone! My name is Brandon Lei and I am a rising sophomore at MIT studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science! At MIT, I am a board member of DynaMIT, a team that organizes a free STEM-based summer program for underprivileged middle school students in the Boston Area. I am also part of HackMIT, a student organization that organizes an annual hackathon for high schoolers and undergraduates. This summer, I am doing a remote internship in NYC. I am working under the amazing leadership of Maor Cohen and Ashik Veerappa as a software engineering intern at Ngram Health.
Ngram Health is a technology startup that makes augmented reality mobile apps for older adults. These apps are based on studies in music therapy and brain neuroplasticity and development. Our goal is to help older adults alleviate stress, increase happiness and diminish feelings of loneliness through our apps. In my role, I am in charge of the backend infrastructure of the app such as managing cloud servers on Amazon Web Services. Besides the technical elements, I have gained so much from this internship that I would like to share.
I always wanted to help others through a passion of mine and this summer I am doing just that! Through making AR apps, I’m able to impact seniors in ways that I never thought were possible. In high school, I helped older adults through doing community service work, such as teaching English to Chinese immigrants, handing them lunch and playing chess with them in my free time. Through my internship, I am able to help others through software engineering, a new dimension through which I can make an impact I had never encountered before! Not only is writing code a passion of mine, I am motivated each day because I know that the work I am doing will impact many people, maybe even my parents one day.
One statistic that I came across during my internship was that only 60 percent of older adults own a smartphone. This was very shocking to me because I can’t imagine myself going through a day without it. It taught me that older adults are not accustomed to the rapidly advancing pace of technology. What cemented this idea even further were the zoom sessions my startup will hold with senior organizations. In these zoom sessions, we present our apps to these seniors, hoping to give them a positive experience. Oftentimes, there would be difficulty for the seniors to access the app. The process of opening the chat on a zoom, clicking on the link and opening it up on Safari may seem intuitive to us, but can be hard for older adults. Being in these zoom sessions really gave me perspective, and taught me to always have the end users in mind when designing an app.
This summer, I am taking a course, 24.133, Experiential Ethics alongside my internship. With the two experiences in conjunction, I have learned just how important ethics and personal values play in our day to day lives and are very relevant in the field of technology. As a software engineer, I am primed to focus on the technical aspects of a project, rarely thinking about other implications of it. However, I believe that ethics is important if not more important than the tech itself. I remember reading an article in 24.133 that argued that technology products are “political”. When I first read that, I was a bit confused. But reading the examples that it gave and reflecting on my own experiences in my internship, I couldn’t agree more. The tech products that we own have massive rippling effects on our society. With each design decision, engineers are placing a certain group of people above the other, shifting the social hierarchy and power dynamics within a society. Think about a simple digital assistant smart speaker such as Amazon Alexa. Those who are able to speak one of its supported languages would love this product. What about those with slow internet or no internet access? What about those who speak one of the hundreds of other languages it doesn’t support? They are left in the dust. Taking 24.133 alongside my internship has really opened my lens when it comes to making design decisions in engineering.
All in all, my internship experience has been amazing and I want to say a big thank you to the PKG center and my team at Ngram Health for giving me this opportunity! I have learned so much about how I can use my passion to help address the issues in this world. I feel more confident to tackle the challenges ahead and I can’t wait to embark on the rest of my MIT journey!
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