Brown CS Student Sabrina Chwalek Worked To Reduce Nuclear And Biological Threats In Her Recent Internship

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A member of the current Brown CS graduating class, Sabrina Chwalek participated in the Brown in Washington program last semester, which welcomes talented Brown undergraduate students who want to apply theory to practice in their concentration area to the District of Columbia. She interned at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan global security organization focused on reducing nuclear and biological threats imperiling humanity.

Sabrina worked specifically for the Global Biological Policy and Programs team, which focuses on countering global catastrophic biological risks, strengthening pandemic preparedness, and building accountability for global health security progress.

Some of Sabrina’s work with NTI included the following projects:

  • Co-authored NTI’s report on The Convergence of Artificial Intelligence and the Life Sciences, which examined the capabilities, limitations, and biosecurity risks from advancements in AI in the life sciences.

  • Attended and presented research at the Biological Weapons Convention 2023 Meeting of States Parties in Geneva as part of NTI’s youth delegation.

  • Researched approaches of leveraging open-source data to facilitate verification of whether a new pandemic is natural, accidental, or deliberate in origin.

  • Organized and attended NTI’s annual Global Biosecurity Dialogue in Bangkok, which was co-hosted with Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health and aimed to build cross-country collaborations to improve regional biosecurity within Southeast Asia.

“Sabrina’s internship is exactly the kind of experience the Brown in Washington program was designed to facilitate,” says Jocelyn Frelier, the Associate Director of Brown in Washington. “She had the chance to make impactful contributions to work she is passionate about, while networking with professionals in her field and discerning her goals for the future.”

Sabrina interned with NTI over the summer before she took part in Brown in Washington, so she had the opportunity to extend her two-and-a-half-month internship into a seven-month consulting contract through participating in the program in the fall. 

“While I did know about NTI before participating in Brown in Washington, Brown had a large role to play in my interest working there. I first became interested in NTI and biosecurity after completing an independent study on biosecurity under Dr. Beth Cameron, who recently joined Brown’s Pandemic Center ,” Sabrina says. “She became a close mentor of mine and used to run NTI’s Global Biological Policy and Programs team, so I became familiar with the organization’s work.”

NTI itself works at the intersection of technology and policy, attempting to safeguard risks in advancements of tech, whether on the nuclear or biological side. Sabrina spent four months with her team launching a new research report on the intersection of AI and the life sciences while also looking at the biosecurity risks. 

“A lot of the AI hype cycle has spilled over into the biosecurity and pandemic preparedness communities. Many people are worried that advancements in AI could make it easier to acquire and engineer pathogens, whether through lowering information barriers or misusing models trained on biological data” Sabrina says. “So most of my work focused on their new portfolio on advancements in AI and its implications for biosecurity.”

According to Sabrina, NTI also focuses heavily on fostering the next generation of biosecurity professionals, so the organization invited a dozen people from around the world, including her, to attend a biological weapons convention in Geneva.

“I was in Geneva for a week and I got to sit in the BWC meetings and witness international diplomacy in person, which was really fantastic, eye-opening, and a little depressing,” Sabrina reflects. “NTI also hosted a side event where all of the youth delegates got to present independent research, so I did my poster presentation on AI and biosecurity largely based on the research I did over the summer.”

When asked about future steps, Sabrina mentions that she took a full-time fellowship offer in Washington, D.C. for after graduation, which will give her the flexibility to work at a think tank that does work relevant to biosecurity and pandemic preparedness.

“It’s fantastic because I get to go through a matching process where I choose my host organization and they also choose me,” Sabrina says. “It is still to be determined, but I also have the option to continue working with Brown’s Pandemic Center in D.C.”

Sabrina states that Brown’s open curriculum helped her become involved in a field that she loves because of the academic freedom to really explore what she was interested in through the opportunities offered. While most of her work was not technical, she remembers moments of her internships where she used the knowledge she learned at Brown CS to explain topics such as model weights or the context of deep learning to D.C. policymakers who do not fully understand the technical side of the research. 

As someone studying computer science on the AI/ML track, Sabrina pivoted and began working with Brown’s Pandemic Center. Her advice to current CS concentrators is to simply “do random things” to find your true interests. “There’s also a strong need for people in DC who actually understand the science and technology that policymakers are trying to regulate,” she says.

“I did an internship in D.C. where I didn’t know if I was going to hate it because I am not much of a person who likes politics, but I ended up loving the policy side of it,” Sabrina says. “So do random things while you can. The door to becoming a software engineer after college is not going to close, but it will be much harder to figure out ‘what if I had done a complete 180 and gone and done something else’.”

For more information, click the following link to contact Brown CS Communications Manager Jesse C. Polhemus.