Q&A with FSU undergraduate bringing data science to underserved students

John Sutor
Florida State University undergraduate John Sutor.

John Sutor is a senior double-majoring in computational science through the Department of Scientific Computing and applied mathematics through the Department of Mathematics, both part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Currently, he and his research team are focused on artificial intelligence as a teaching tool and the use of neural networks to produce synthetic visual data. Sutor founded Sci Teens, a nonprofit that provides educational mentoring to under-resourced students. He has also published three papers about machine learning and the training of a YOLOv3 program to identify real or synthetic sea turtles in the past two years. He has spoken at the three correlating international conferences in Waynesville, N.C., Okayama, Japan, and Chengdu, China.

Where are you from and what is your anticipated graduation date?

I'm from Boca Raton, Fla., and I’m slated to graduate in Spring 2022.

What brought you to Florida State University?

I decided to attend FSU after participating in the university’s Young Scholars Program in high school. YSP is a six-week residential science and mathematics summer program for Florida high school students who possess significant potential for careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I fell in love with the campus, and really enjoyed the faculty under whom I studied.

What inspired you to choose your major and specific area of research?

I've always loved coding, ever since I began when I was nine. It was a no-brainer for me to choose to major in computational science, and I have always enjoyed math almost as much as I enjoy coding, so I decided to add a second major of applied mathematics. I chose to conduct my research on educational technology because I’m passionate about it. I'm intrigued by the implications that data science and machine learning have to offer for the field of ed-tech.

Which, if any, faculty members have helped or inspired you during your time at FSU?

All my professors within the FSU Department of Scientific Computing have inspired me to pursue computational science. Every professor in the department has a true passion for the subject matter, and that passion reflects in the way they teach each class. I've always enjoyed the labs and coursework from my computational science classes. One standout faculty member who has inspired me the most is professor Jonathan Adams, from the College of Communication and Information. I've developed tremendously as a researcher, a student, and a person through his guidance as a mentor. He's helped me to achieve things I never thought possible, such as getting three papers published as an undergraduate student. With the help of professor Adams and my fellow students Ava Dodd and Erin Murphy, as a team, we were able to successfully participate in the following conferences. The first was “AI and Undergraduate Research: A Dialog in Project Based Learning,” which we brought to the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference in April 2020. The next was “Assessing the Qualities of Synthetic Visual Data Production,” from the 9th International Conference on Information and Education Technology in May 2021. Finally, “Evaluating the Real Time Performance of Synthetic Visual Data for Real Time Object Detection,” which was accepted to the 6th International Conference on Communication, Image and Signal Processing. My team and I are looking forward to presenting this third paper remotely in November.

What has your team been able to accomplish with the grants you have been awarded?

We were able to get the three previously listed papers published over the last two years, despite the onset of the pandemic. With the money awarded to us we have been able to dedicate more resources to outreach and recruit more members to join our team. We have also been given a dedicated lab space, the MLab. The MLab is the School of Information’s interdisciplinary machine-learning lab, and it is dedicated to providing improvements in the use and understanding of artificial intelligence. These new members come from a wide range of backgrounds — we have people majoring in subjects from biology to music. Most of our recruiting was conducted through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and reaching out to students on an individual level.

Have you brought your research to any conferences? If yes, could you tell me about that experience?

We were accepted to three conferences (SITE 2020, ICIET 2021, and CCISP 2021), though all of them have been remote so far. I haven’t had a true in-person experience of presenting at a conference, though it was nonetheless exciting to present at the remote alternatives with the rest of the team.

What was the initial inspiration behind your founding of Sci Teens and what is the company’s overall mission?

Our mission is to bridge the gap between education and opportunity — particularly for under-resourced students — by providing them with mentorship and community through our free online platform. We help students find resources related to coding and teach them about exploring data through the open-source data science program Jupyter Notebooks. I initially started the nonprofit with my cofounder, Carlos Mercado-Lado, after competing in the science fair my freshman year of high school, where we noticed discrepancies in the resources available to our peers. Though the other competitors had fantastic ideas for conducting research projects, they couldn’t pursue their passions due to a lack of mentorship. Not only that, but there was a lack of knowledge in subject matter from outside of the classroom as well, with parents or guardians being unable to teach them these skills from home.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I enjoy coding quite a bit; though, I also enjoy hanging out with friends and watching sports, particularly football and basketball.

After graduating, what are your plans?

I plan to go to graduate school somewhere with a solid machine or statistical learning program and conduct further research in educational technology. I currently plan on becoming a data scientist, but expect my career goals to evolve over time.

What advice do you have for fellow students?

Take advantage of the resources that FSU has to offer and make the most out of meeting new people while you’re here. I've met so many fantastic professors, students, and people in general at Florida State. They have collectively enabled me to further develop myself as an individual and a researcher. Without them, I would not have been able to accomplish all that I have during my time at Florida State.