Equitech Scholar from Lebanon awarded a scholarship to pursue masters in Data and Public Policy at École Polytechnique

By Anodya Mishra

Cynthia Francis from Lebanon will start her Master of Science and Technology in Data and Economics for Public Policy from École Polytechnique (L'X), a member of the Institut Polytechnique De Paris, in September 2024. Currently, she is in her final year of the undergraduate program at the Lebanese American University. Looking back at her journey, Cynthia shared, “The Equitech Scholars Program (ESP) inspired me to pursue my graduate studies in data and policy. I was totally unaware of the possibilities in the field of data science before I joined Equitech, and I give credit to this global fellowship for introducing me to this field of studies.” 

In 2023, Cynthia was selected to be a part of the third cohort of the Equitech Scholars Program. A student of mathematics, she was keen to explore the field of applied AI and data science. “I remember my first day in the Applied AI class (taught by Abhilash Mishra) like it was yesterday.  I remember Abhilash saying, “You don’t have to be an AI engineer to understand how AI works, just like you don’t have to know how to build a car to drive one”. It was a very simple and obvious remark, but it instilled confidence in me to be able to do this program. ChatGPT had been in the headlines for a few months already when the ESP program started, and I used to feel so lost in the blackhole of AI buzzwords, but through this program I realized that what is important is to understand the applications of AI, and not the trending terms in the realm of it.” 

At the end of the ESP program, Cynthia successfully completed a capstone thesis on the application of AI in early detection of ADHD in children. Her experience of working as a tutor for multiple platforms, both in her university and outside, inspired her to research on this topic. “I had been working as a math tutor at MMKN, an organization offering educational help to children of refugees in Lebanon, and I had also worked at an education tech startup - and in both these places I noticed that mental illnesses like ADHD often went undiagnosed among children, leading to negative impacts in their academic performance. Since teachers and administrators also had little to no knowledge about mental health, they would just label these children as ‘disruptive’, instead of trying to find a solution to their learning disability. Thus, as a witness to this problem, I wanted to work on it during my capstone thesis at ESP.”

Cynthia elaborated further on her process of working on the capstone thesis. “The best part about a global cohort coming from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds is the peer to peer learning you experience. I came from a math background and from a region where mental health discussions were still a taboo, so I depended a lot on the knowledge and experiences of my cohort. We had scholars from psychology and biotechnology backgrounds, who helped me polish my thesis and patiently answered my questions. I was also very thankful for the guidance provided by Raunaq Jain, who was a Teaching Assistant, and gave me continuous feedback on my drafts.”

At Equitech Futures, scholars are also given training in communication and writing skills along with their classes on tech and AI. Cynthia appreciated this curriculum and remarked, “Being a non-native English speaker, the Speaking Lab by Thomas Murray and the Writing Lab by Krittika Bhattacharjee helped me polish my communication skills. During one of our initial classes at the Speaking Lab, Thomas said that the barrier to oral communication is not ability, but shame. This was so true, I thought. People are shamed every time they try to speak a non-native language, corrected on their pronunciation and syntax, whereas the actual purpose of a language is just to help us understand each other better. During our final presentation for the Speaking Lab, all the scholars were asked to speak for a set period of time, and it was a surreal experience - everyone was so vulnerable, we were all good speakers and good listeners that day! And the credit for all of this goes to Thomas - he is the heart and soul of Equitech Futures, and an excellent teacher.”

While Cynthia was attending classes at Equitech, she was also a part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Brain Lab hosted by the United Nations Global Compact Network - an organization affiliated with the United Nations. “The aim of this program was to understand the gaps in SDG in Lebanon and formulate actionable efforts to address these gaps. I wrote a case study about the sustainability efforts of Lebanese employees working in corporate companies.” Cynthia also found parallels between ESP and the SDG Brain Lab. “At Equitech, we used to have a guest lecture every Friday on Societal and Ethical Perspectives on Technology. These lectures made tech more human, and more approachable. We would discuss topics like AI democracy, AI in public policy, and more - this tied up to my experience with the SDG Brain Lab because one theme that was common in both was public policy.”

Currently, Cynthia is pursuing the Lebnet Tech Fellows program which is aimed at equipping the next generation of Lebanese technologists with the skills needed to transition into careers and higher studies in technology post-university. “I received word about this opportunity from Abhilash, and I found it so thoughtful because it made me realize that when you become a part of Equitech, the journey doesn’t end after your program ends - it is a lifetime network.” 

With numerous achievements up her sleeve, Cynthia has to ensure effective time management. “I am a very organized person. I organize my calendar and make time for all my tasks in advance, and I love doing that. Also, I am genuinely excited about everything that I partake in - be it tutoring or tech programs.” She ends her interview with similar advice for future scholars of Equitech programs. “The Equitech programs are intense and require an ample amount of time and commitment from your side, so come to this program only if you can give time. Make schedules in advance - it will help you utilize your time better. And lastly, just be excited about the learning. If you have signed up for the program, that means you voluntarily want to learn, so have an open mind about that.”

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