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Tech For Social Good Spotlight: Priya Patel '16

by Adi Melamed

Click the link that follows for other stories in the Tech for Social Good Spotlight series and more news items about our innovative and pioneering alums.

The Tech For Social Good Spotlight is a series focused on recent Brown Computer Science graduates working at the intersection of computer science and social good. The goal of these interviews is to explore what it means to work in the technology for social good space, what technology for social good might even mean in the first place, and most importantly, share advice for Brown students considering this path. The spotlight is organized by Impact Labs, a student-run organization creating awareness and access to opportunities in the tech for social good space.

Priya Patel graduated from Brown in 2016 with a degree in computer science. She works as a software engineer at TrialSpark, a startup that builds tools to make the clinical trials process more efficient and accessible so that more patients can get the treatments they need.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your past experiences in the CS for social good space?

I’ve always been interested in education and computer science, so I TAed many CS courses at Brown. Then, I taught for Girls Who Code in Miami, which was the first time I was surrounded by people of color teaching students of color. That experience was very impactful and it was really great to be put in a position where I was teaching people who might not have otherwise thought to study CS. After graduating, I looked for opportunities related to social good, education, and CS. I found a software engineering bootcamp in Queens, NY for low-income adults. I worked as a program manager and instructor at the bootcamp, which held accessible night and weekend classes for students in the NYC area without prior experience. Honestly, it was really hard. Nonprofits can have a difficult work environment because there’s so much pressure from all sides to get results that are difficult to measure. Then there’s the question whether our measures really capture whether we’re helping students, or if we’re even helping out at all. Some students couldn’t finish the bootcamp, or, more importantly, didn’t have access to more basic necessities like food. It’s hard to know if what you’re doing is right. And, if you go into job where the only thing keeping you going is impact it takes a toll knowing that you’re not able to save everyone.

What do you enjoy most about working in a social good tech startup?

At TrialSpark, I work on a tool that matches patients with clinical trials that are happening in New York. Historically, most clinical trials have been done on white men, so it’s pretty cool that we are purposefully located in NY so that we can leverage the diversity of NY to get more patients into trials. Being in a clinical trial means that you, as a patient, get compensated, so it can be like free healthcare for patients who qualify. It feels very impactful to be making trials accessible to people who wouldn’t have otherwise known about them. As a software engineer at TrialSpark, it’s a little different from the bootcamp in Queens where I felt every day I was having an impact. Here, the impact feels a little more removed. Even though the day to day is writing code, I like writing code for a reason I think is important and building products that are a net good for the world.

Why did you choose to pursue CS for social good?

I think people don’t really go to Brown if they don’t have some sort of save the world mindset. My ultimate goal is to try to use CS for good and not evil. Computer science is not just a means to create income or a means to generate labor. Technology has a tangible impact on people’s lives and I’m interested in how we can educate people about it.

What is your advice for students at Brown interested in pursuing a career in the tech for social good space?

My first bit of advice would be that you have to build up your arsenal of skills and you might have to work for a big tech company to learn how to work for a social good organization. The skills you get working a software development job that isn’t social good, on the surface, are still important. Right out of the gate you don’t have the development chops to really meaningfully help a lot of organizations that need really strong developers. You will need to learn how to be a good engineer if you ultimately want to be an engineer for social good. There’s also other ways as a software engineer to give back, financially or through volunteering. There are non-conventional paths that exist. You do not have to study CS and become a software engineer. You can become a teacher or advise people who work for organizations like the ACLU or EFF. The options are open.

The views and opinions expressed above are those of an individual, and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Brown University or Brown University's Department of Computer Science, nor does their publication here constitute an endorsement of them.

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.