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Alumni News: Spotlights

May 19, 2023   |   by Theresa D'Orsi   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Spotlights on recent achievements of Dartmouth Engineering alumni.

Mira Murati Th'12

"Human Helper"

As the chief technology officer at OpenAI, Mira Murati Th'12 is leading the teams behind DALL-E, which uses AI to create artwork based on prompts, and ChatGPT, the wildly popular AI chatbot that can answer complex questions with eerily humanlike skill. "ChatGPT is essentially a large conversational model—a big neural net that’s been trained to predict the next word," she tells Time magazine. "And the challenges with it are similar challenges we see with the base large language models: It may make up facts." She sees that as a core challenge—and one that can be addressed through dialogue and feedback. Future conversations may also involve input from regulators and governments, which she welcomes. "It's not too early" to get them involved, she tells Reuters. Last fall, she shared her thoughts on the ethical and moral questions of using AI—as well as its creative capabilities—on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. "The technology we're building has such a huge effect on society, but society can and should shape it," she says. "There are a ton of questions we are wrestling with every day. We see them as tools, as an extension of our creativity." Murati pointed to the ancient Greeks' idea of "human helpers," engaged to balance infinite powers of knowledge or strength with vulnerabilities. "These concepts of extending human abilities and being aware of the vulnerabilities are timeless," she says. "In a sense, we are continuing this conversation by building AI technologies today."

New Mediums

Cole Douglas '20 Th'20
Cole Douglas '20 Th'20

"I believe in abundance," says Cole "The Renaissance" Douglas '20 Th'20. With art shows across LA and the recent publication of his photography, City Heights in Winter, the San Diego, Calif-based mechanical engineer is flush with opportunity. "I came up with the name 'the Renaissance' as a reaction to feeling boxed in before exploring my artistic pursuits," he says. "I wanted a name that encapsulated the possibilities now that I appreciate the abundance of opportunities." He began to discover those opportunities as an undergrad. "My friends introduced me one medium at a time: paint nights with the roommates, photo walks with the homies." Since graduation he has continued to mix mediums, working as a development engineer at medical device company NuVasive while exploring street photography, abstract painting, poetry, and digital art. He finds his engineering mindset enhances his art. "I'm fascinated with the 'why' behind people's actions," he says. "The engineer in me loves understanding the fundamentals of how things work. My art is to life as physics is to an engineer—questioning the fundamentals of how people operate."

Zac Carman '02

Rave Reviews

Zac Carman '02 appreciates the value of second chances: "I failed at a startup, so I went to work at a growth equity firm to learn how to buy businesses and be an entrepreneur from accomplished entrepreneurs." Those lessons helped the engineering sciences major convince a group of investors to acquire consumer-review website ConsumerAffairs in 2010. As CEO, he has bootstrapped the business to 220 employees and more than $100 million in annual revenue. Tulsa, Okla-based ConsumerAffairs is a repository for free online reviews, which also provide valuable insight to companies—for a fee—about their customers. "We help consumers throughout life's hardest moments—aging, moving, home ownership—by teaching them how to buy and connecting them with the right companies," says Carman. "Every day we match more than 12,000 consumers with brands."

Back on Track

After two years of virtual events—including "Vrooom by Zoom" in 2021—Formula Hybrid+Electric (FH+E) Director Mike Chapman '76 Th'77 is happy to be back on the NH Motor Speedway in Loudon for a second year. Founded and run by Thayer since 2006, FH+E challenges students to design and construct a race vehicle with a hybrid or all-electric drivetrain that focuses on fuel efficiency in a high-performance application. After a career in project management, Chapman took the lead in time for the 2019 competition. He runs the international program out of offices at Thayer, juggling on-site inspections, finding sponsors, and supporting student teams. "Registration is strong for the 2023 competition—we’re expecting 23 teams for the on-track competition and 14 for the virtual racing challenge," he says, including five new teams from Cornell, MIT, San Jose State, and the universities of Maryland and Toronto.

Jennie Cunningham '17 Th'18

Full Circle

When Jennie Cunningham '17 Th'18 took a class with Professor Benoit Cushman-Roisin, he introduced her via a Ted Talk to bamboo designers in Indonesia. Fast-forward almost a decade and she is bringing their techniques—learned last year through a build-and-design course at Bamboo U—to Hanover with Cushman-Roisin's course, ENGS 171: Industrial Ecology. "I am coming to campus to lecture and serve as a project consultant for students' term projects," says Cunningham, a Boston-based environmental engineer at Burns & McDonnell. She is drawing on her experience creating a bamboo serving tray at the Bali-based program. "I wanted to create a product that demonstrated the natural strength and versatility of bamboo," she says. "My biggest takeaway was that a design will change many times during the process, but in the end, you land on the design that was meant to be all along.

"Paved a Path"

Emily Koepsell '09 Th'10
Emily Koepsell '09 Th'10

Emily Koepsell '09 Th'10 was one of the top non-Nepali female finishers in last year's Everest Marathon. She trained by trail running around the Bay Area, where she worked as program manager for Apple and then in technical operations for Lunar Energy. "Because the race is such a unique event, my main goal was to enjoy the experience. Therefore, I went into my training with a fairly relaxed outlook," she says. "Typically, I would run several days after work and on weekends I would do a long, hilly trail run with a weighted running vest." She upped her distances and weights as race day approached, then headed to the Himalayas for the 10-day hike to Everest Base Camp at 17,598 feet, the starting point for the marathon. It was one of the greater challenges for Koepsell, who has been balancing extreme sports and a demanding profession since she left Dartmouth with degrees in environmental earth science and engineering. She earned a Fulbright scholarship, which enabled her to study sustainable energy at the Technical University of Denmark before she pursued an MBA and MS at MIT. "I think adeptly juggling both work and personal pursuits is much easier said than done. It has only been in the past couple of years that I've realized how important this type of challenging adventure is for me," says Koepsell, who has since left Lunar and moved to Seattle to be closer to the mountains. She most recently climbed the highest mountain in South America, Aconcagua in the Andes, and this year is aiming to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and run the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland. "When I’m in my 70s or 80s, I want to be able to look back on how I lived my life and know that I seized every opportunity, tried my hardest, didn’t buckle under a fear of failure, and paved a path so others can follow."

Biotech Leaders

Joey Anthony '12 Th'13 reports a cluster of Thayer alumni are making a difference at biotech startup Ultima Genomics in Stockton, Calif. "Jake Wolf '12 Th'13 and I have been working there since 2018, when there were only about 40 employees. We were some of the first mechanical engineers," says Anthony. "More recently, we had Noah White '21 Th'21, Philip Bennet '19 Th'20, and Nolan Sankey '21 Th'22 start with internships and join full time." The contingent is helping the Bay Area, Calif-based company deliver a genome sequencing for $100. It's an effort that made news at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference last year and headlines in The New York Times’ "Upstart" column: "Can Start-Ups Significantly Lower the Cost of Gene Sequencing? Companies like Ultima Genomics say they have the technology, which could lead to medical breakthroughs." The days of 'statistical oomph'— meaning an explosion in the amount of data gleaned from lower-priced tests—appear imminent, according to the report. "Whole genome sequencing for that price can potentially accelerate the development of a massive database that can be mined to find genes that cause illnesses, to shed light on the complex influence groups of genes have on one another and to detect genetic changes that indicate the presence of cancer before a PET or MRI scan could."

Jeff Spielberg '10 Th'11

Security Team

Jeff Spielberg '10 Th'11 founded River Loop Security in 2012 with computer science majors Ryan Speers '11 and Ricky Melagres '11 initially to support the consulting work they were doing outside their day jobs. "It took us several years to recognize our experience filled a huge gap in our massively connected digital world," says Spielberg. In 2019, the trio focused full-time on building a team of electrical engineers and computer scientists to design and build cybersecurity solutions. When Two Six Technologies acquired River Loop last year, the customer base included Fortune 100 utility and electronics companies as well as the US Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Now, as Two Six's director of product and service delivery, Boston-based Spielberg can tap into more resources and help refine research-and-development efforts. Two areas he's eager to explore: Security capabilities baked into hardware at the silicon level and new applications for machine learning. "While the security industry has lagged in its adoption of machine learning, I expect our team to bring new products to market in 2023 that commercialize many years of research in this domain."

Austin Boesch Th'16

Creating Spaces

As the Thayer representative on the Alumni Council, Austin Boesch Th'16 says he'll "encourage current students and recent alumni to 'learn how to ask' so they can more effectively leverage the powerful network Thayer and the broad Dartmouth community has created." He is drawing on his experience in Hanover to help young alumni navigate their lives and careers after Dartmouth. "Having attended Thayer later in life than a typical PhD student seemed daunting at first," he says, "but I found a lot of the volunteer, social, and entrepreneurial activities at Dartmouth helped me transition back to academia from industry and created spaces for me to build lasting relationships." Those connections with students, professors, and alumni enabled him to cofound biotech firm Zepteon Inc. while on campus and then fueled his service on the Dean's Council from 2016 to 2019. "I felt motivated to help enable recent grads' access to resources that can be valuable at the early stages of their career," he says. Boesch continues to serve as CEO of the Boston-based company, has worked with biotech firms Tidal Therapeutics and Sanofi, and is currently "pressure testing some new technology ideas with aims to launch more companies in the biotech space."

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