One thing that drives each of us forward is the pursuit of our place in the world. It is likely why many of us pursue college degrees and get involved on campus; although we would like our journey to be a linear, upward path with typical milestones — such as getting into a good school, finding a good job, and planting roots somewhere we are truly happy — for many of us, this trajectory is a winding one, with various highs and lows. For Michael Cho, a fourth-year student at UW Bothell, his journey to find a place in which he could truly thrive included years of bouncing from one job to another. Trying to make ends meet, Cho turned to illicit activities and was eventually incarcerated.
During this time, Cho participated in Second Chance Pell, a federal pilot program that grants incarcerated students the opportunity to further their education. Through the offered classes, Cho realized where he wanted his path to lead. “I always had an end goal to get into computer science or engineering,” Cho said. “I was really passionate about computers and technology.”Although progress on his associate’s degree was interrupted when he was transferred to another correctional institution, Cho persisted and continued his education, with the aspiration of taking classes in STEM.“I was in the pilot program for that, and ended up being the first graduate, I believe, in Washington state through the Second Chance Pell [program],” Cho said.Second Chance Pell helped Cho nurture his interest in computers during his six-year prison sentence. Afterward, Cho transferred to Seattle Central Community College, completing the general requirements he would need for the UW Bothell computer engineering program.“I just like seeing how transformational education was for me,” Cho said. “I wanted to see how far I could take it. I knew a graduate degree would help give me more of a voice in the community, maybe help come back to places that are underrepresented and help teach STEM education.”Cho credits the McNair Scholars, a mentorship program that prepares low-income students for graduate school, for helping him foster meaningful connections with mentors on campus and prepare him to enter a prestigious graduate program. “Those programs really helped me heal my mind and find something I was passionate about again,” Cho said. During his time at UW Bothell, Cho participated in two research projects — one of which led to the publication of a research paper.
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Cho’s primary focus area is machine learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence that leverages data to teach the algorithm, or process, how to function rather than relying on programmed behaviors. The purpose of machine learning is to teach machines how to operate based on previous data. Cho’s research in machine learning allows the average day-to-day user to contribute data to machine learning development, expanding the information available to researchers. An example of this research in practice is creating a QR code for users in a public setting to scan and upload pictures of birds in the park.“We’re able to bring that machine learning system from centralized servers like expensive hardware to mobile devices, and my part of the research was actually developing that framework for training machine learning models,” Cho said. Using a more diverse pool of data allows researchers to further refine the results generated by machine learning algorithms to create more accurate outputs. Cho presented this research at a conference hosted virtually in Japan to discuss the application of his framework in other cities to improve machine learning models. Cho also pioneered research on homomorphic encryption, a type of data encryption that provides more security and privacy over information. Cho was selected to receive the Mary Gates Research Scholarship to support his research in machine learning. “School has been really important to me to help me find my footing in society, and just meeting amazing people who really care about your success and changing your life and finding something you’re passionate about,” Cho said.Cho is preparing to further his education through a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering. While highly motivated, Cho continues to credit and show gratitude to the faculty members that helped him through this process. Regardless of whether you are seeking community or overcoming adversity, Cho said to “be proactive and make connections with people.” Advocating for himself was precisely how he was able to leverage programs like Second Chance Pell and the McNair Scholars to excel at UW and beyond. Reach reporter Julie Emory at [email protected] Twitter: @JulieEmory2Like what you’re reading? Support high-quality student journalism by donating here.