If Sharon Lin had a superpower, it would be her keen ability to make technology accessible and approachable for everyone, no matter their age or gender. At the tender age of 19, she’s already designed an app that has the potential to save lives, launched a startup, published a book, founded and fostered several hackathons for young aspiring engineers, and attended countless international tech events. Driven by her mission to spread the gospel of technology to women and young people everywhere, Sharon is exactly the kind of ethical-minded techie the world needs. If only she could use those science smarts to clone herself, the world would be a much better place!
Who or what played a central role in the development of your interest in technology?
Even though I generally feel like I’m an introvert, I really like being around other people and learning about the projects that they’re working on. When I first learned to code, I learned through small projects, like games that I programmed in the terminal. As I became more mature and learned more, I still found myself gravitating toward building interesting projects that usually spanned multiple disciplines, whether they were electronic or mechanical.
Even though I still felt inexperienced, I eventually signed up for a hackathon at UNC Chapel Hill called PearlHacks. The hackathon changed my perspective on technology and convinced me that it was the right field for me. Being surrounded by passionate individuals learning new things, working on cool projects and talking about the ways their technology could have a positive impact on their communities was so inspiring for me.
Since then, I’ve attended over 40 hackathons, organized more than six, and have mentored at dozens more. I constantly see students stumbling into their first hackathon and leaving completely inspired and ready to change the world.
What is the idea behind your app, White Water? What impact do you hope the app will have?
During my senior year of high school, I learned about Neglected Zoonotic Diseases and I felt that it was unfair for communities to not have predictive means to determine whether their water sources were contaminated or not. I had recently learned about machine learning tools and I wanted to understand how they could be applied to identifying bacteria in water sources. After several iterations of applying different classification methods to a series of photos of bacteria suspended in water, I created a workflow that was able to accurately determine the type of bacteria that was visible.
I hope that this app will eventually help improve the state of healthcare and prevention in communities in Southeast Asia that are riddled with diseases carried by vectors such as parasitic worms. Present means of eradicating NZDs are still limited to curing the diseases and providing vaccines after symptoms have been discovered, but moving towards developing technology that can shorten the timespan or even prevent such incidents from occurring is a lofty but achievable goal.
You are also the founder of the MIT Bitcoin Hackathon and your startup, Cosmodo. How do you think blockchain and Cosmodo will impact our future?
My startup Cosmodo is a blockchain based education network. I plan on scaling it up to create free decentralized content for students from all reaches of the world, eliminating censorship in media and institutional overhead on educational content. I'm hoping the movement will create greater awareness for the revolution that blockchain technology will bring, as well as provide certifications and technology education to more students than ever before.
I think that blockchain technology is still currently in its early stages, but once it is more mature, it will be able to provide greater privacy and security without the cost of labor. Rather than allowing businesses and entities to hide behind an esoteric financial system, it will provide greater transparency to all stakeholders in business transactions.
Why is diversity in STEM so important? How do you hope to get girls excited about STEM? Why should everyone be familiar with coding to some extent?
This summer, I had the opportunity to co-teach a class on programming and electronics with Arduino, and it was a great opportunity for me to recenter myself on why I enjoy teaching and sharing what I know. In many fields of STEM, the ultimate goal is to create a product or process that will be used by others. These products and processes are in turn subjected to a series of validation tests to insure that they are ready for use. Without having a fully diverse team behind the creation and validation process, it is nearly impossible to cover every possible use case or flaw. Furthermore, understanding the perspective of the user becomes difficult without a diverse workforce.
In addition, if workplaces don’t make an effort to support diversity, it is more difficult to determine their ethical grounds. For instance, if a company doesn’t actively support females at their own company, it is hard to say whether or not they would be open to conducting business with a nation-state that discriminates against women. I feel the importance of getting girls excited about STEM, because without having similar role models, I would never have felt comfortable pursuing such a male-dominated field as computer science.
Having peers who can relate to you creates a safe space in any field, and STEM is no different. Given how much technology already dominates our lives today, from industrial control systems to entertainment systems to the ubiquity of smartphones, understanding at least the basics of how these products are created is vital to future career opportunities. Nearly every field incorporates technology to some degree, and having programming knowledge can help with job security, self-reliance and even empowerment.
Alongside your involvement with STEM, you have also published a book, Hidden. How do you hope to connect writing with your work in technology? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing has been a passion of mine since I first learned to tell stories. I believe that storytelling is still the best way to connect to others and to empathize with them. When I was still learning to code, I would frequently read blogs and listen to podcasts to learn more about the latest news in technology. Through these channels I found a handful of individuals I admired, and began following their blogs and write-ups as well.
Inspiration can come in something as simple as a quick blog post after a project or a conference, or even as an advice column for newcomers in your field. I’ve been blogging on Medium and other websites since I started to code, and the responses that I get from readers are so empowering. I love knowing that something that I’ve written has helped inspire another individual to pursue their goals.
I would say that persistence is the most important part of writing. There are days when you won’t be able to write anything that you feel is up to par, or when you simply don’t have any new inspiration. Reading what others have written, getting a feel for what makes you excited, and writing about the things that you’re passionate about are the best ways to stay connected to others in your field and to become a role model yourself.
What advice do you have for ambitious college women with goals and dreams that may seem unattainable?
If any dream seems unattainable, the first step is finding people who have accomplished something close to or in the realm of what you ultimately want to do. Find out where they started and the steps they took to reach where they are today, whether on Wikipedia or through interviews, so you can get a perspective of how you can take the necessary steps to reach your goal.
I don’t generally think goals need to be unattainable. While some may be unattainable in a certain time frame, if the goal ultimately works towards your passions, even making a small breakthrough is a great accomplishment. I’d encourage other women with lofty goals to seek out mentors and even cold-call or email leaders in their fields to ask for advice. Even if you end up with dozens of rejections, it only takes one response to change your life.
What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?
My biggest achievement is actually an ongoing process, but it’s learning to accept myself for who I am. As I’ve matured in my academic and professional career, I’ve learned that the most important thing in any role is to be genuine. No matter where you work, you’ll always have to interact with other people. If you’re genuine and honest about who you are and what you know, not only will others be more willing to help you, they’ll sometimes even actively work alongside you and support you in your goals.
Going from feeling like a complete imposter in technology to teaching others to code has humbled me and shown me that every expert started as a beginner. Not being afraid to ask questions, constantly soaking up knowledge, and pursuing experiences and opportunities to learn have all come from me being able to accept myself for all of my quirks and uniqueness.
Contrary to popular belief, STEM fields require creativity, and when you’re busy stifling who you are to be who you think you should be, you’re also stifling your ability to contribute your perspective. Learning to accept myself and share the traits and knowledge that I have with others has brought me so many opportunities and allowed me to meet so many life-changing people.
What are your goals for after you graduate?
I hope to pursue research in data science or security as a Masters student before transitioning into a role as a security engineer at a company. I want to continue upholding my values and humanitarian goals, so my decisions will take into account the company culture and history, as well as opportunities to help serve others in my role.
I would ultimately like to start a consulting business or a company of my own that contributes toward helping others. On a more personal side, I’d like to travel the world speaking at conferences, giving workshops and sharing projects that I’ve built with others. I hope to ultimately continue building communities of makers and builders, and to continue fostering the spirit of self-expression and diversity through technology.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Creative, driven, passionate, caring, analytical
Elizabeth is a second year student at Durham University, studying Sociology and Anthropology. She is currently a News x Social Media Intern at HC headquarters in Boston and has been involved in the Durham University chapter of Her Campus since January 2018.