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–Interview by Elisia Brodeur–
Earlier this year I sat down with RIS alumnus Panuvat (Todd) Chutichetpong, who is currently a freshman at Harvard. On break from university for the holiday, Todd was kind enough to talk with me about life after RIS, life in Boston, and his remarkable achievement in earning the highest possible score of 45 in the IB Diploma Program.
Congratulations on your perfect IB score of 45! How did that feel? Actually, I initially got a 44 and was surprised because I didn’t feel I had applied myself as much as I could have. Because my university entrance had already been determined, some of the pressure was off. Then I was even more surprised when I learned that there had been a miscalculation error and that I had actually received a 45.
You were one of 259 students in the world—less than 0.5%—of the 84,265 summer 2018 IB candidates to achieve that distinction. What advice would you give other IB students? I took both the AP and the IB courses, so I think I have a fair perspective on both. I think the IB is more like a marathon in the sense that it’s two years long and the work is cumulative. The exams are a compilation of what you’ve learned throughout the entire two years. Everything you’ve learned, from the first day on, can be on your final exam. Time management is a vital skill in accomplishing that marathon. It’s also important to become familiar with the vision of the IB program. The IB is not just about instilling knowledge; many tasks ask you to explore the boundaries of knowledge. These extra elements teach you more about how to think. I think the IB is similar to a saying my dad has told me: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Knowing how to think about what you learn is a valuable skill that carries on beyond school.
How do you feel the IB program prepared you for university? At university there’s a huge focus on exploration. The curiculum isn’t established or rigid; there are a lot of gray areas where you can explore and dig deeper. The program also emphasizes exploration and requires you to elaborate on your answers to show that you understand a concept versus giving you multiple-choice options.
How was the transition from RIS to Harvard? The transition was pretty smooth because the culture at both places is quite similar. The environment at Harvard is more competitive, which isn’t surprising. Harvard also challenges students to go to new limits and levels of learning, which forces students to collaborate. But I was used to that at RIS. There are also a lot of clubs to choose from, student council, sports, etc., which is also true at RIS. A key difference is that in high school you spend most of your day in school. At college, your schedule can be such that you have only one class a day. So you spend a lot more time working outside of class and on your homework. College gives you more freedom, so it’s important to manage your time and make responsible choices.
In what ways is Harvard like you expected? How is it different? I had never actually visited Harvard before I went, so l didn’t have a lot of specific expectations. But I knew it would be cold! The college environment and the level of challenge is about what I expected. What I didn’t expect was such a small Thai population in the undergraduate program. There are only 3 Thai undergrads at Harvard. One student is Thai but grew up in the States, the other two are from Thailand—and both of them are also from RIS! There are other Thai students in the graduate and MBA programs, so a total of around 20 Thai students all together.
What do you like about Harvard? The interdisciplinary nature of the classes. Right now I’m taking a new class that’s being offered at Harvard called “Using Big Data to Solve Social Problems,” which involves elements from the social sciences, math, and data science. The professor is Raj Chetty, a pretty famous American economist who specializes in public economics. I’m really excited about using data science tools to make sense of and help to solve social science problems.
Did you go to Harvard knowing that you wanted to study Applied Mathematics and Data Science or did that evolve? If so, how? No, it kind of evolved. Before I was into making inventions using biotech. Last semester and the summer after graduation I started doing research with Al, diagnosing Alzheimer’s based on conversational speeches. We recorded conversations and used a program that feeds into artificial neural networks. The Al can then extract ratios of different features of speech, such as the ratio of pauses. It uses specific features of speech to deduce 136 predictors to determine whether a person has Alzheimers or not But we need to train the model with hundreds of patients in order to produce reliable data. I have made several inventions and worked on projects in different fields and areas of knowledge, but I liked this last one most.
How did you come up with this project? One of my close relatives had Alzheimer’s. I also read scientific newspapers and have been learning about using Al as a diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s. This is already happening in the US but not in Thailand as advancements in this particular realm of science are often not relevant to the Thai language so the tools can’t incorporate Al as is. So I made an algorithm that focuses on the Thai language by modifying the algorithm used for the English language. Because the Thai language uses a higher harmonicity than English, it uses a different metric, so I needed to segment the features of speech into vowels, consonants, and pauses, etc.
Where are you with this project? At the moment I’m working with a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand who is working to test the Al on patients in Chulalongkorn Hospital. I can’t be involved with the hands-on testing part because I’m no longer local, but I help with gathering data. In previous tests, the Al predicted Alzheimer’s with a 93% accuracy rate. To establish further accuracy, we need patients from a bigger segment of the population.
How do you think attending an international school like RIS helped you be an international student at a university abroad? I think language has been essential; being immersed and learning in English. At RIS there are many clubs and sports and activities, which is similar to college. The rigor of the IB program was a good segue to the rigor at Harvard. The research required for the IB Extended Essay was good preparation because research is emphasized at university and will be especially valuable for my senior thesis, which I plan to start working on next year.
Is there anything about your experience(s) at RIS that you feel sets you apart or gives you an advantage over other Harvard students? At RIS, the volunteer activities and the opportunity to travel to other places gave me more experiences in seeing what’s out there, beyond university and cities university have never seen those things. The experience of volunteering in rural areas has given me a different perspective. I miss the bonds and intimacy of the friendships I had at RIS. Many of my classmates had also been here since first grade, so that closeness was something I was used to. I also miss the level of accountability. What do you wish you had known before you arrived at Harvard? I wish I had known to bring warmer clothes and had been better prepared for the weather! Right now there is a 45 degree differential between Bangkok and Boston.
Is there anything you really enjoy about Boston? I really love the variety of foods and the access to it. There are a couple of good, authentic Thai and ethnic restaurants nearby. I’ve been to a Harvard/Yale football game, which was pretty intense but had a lot of spirit. I also enjoy the colors of the leaves in the fall.
What are your current interests and plans? I’m really interested in exploring the intersections of data science, humanities, healthcare, and pure data science.
Thanks for your time, Todd. We look forward to seeing what you do next!