In search of eureka: Sacha Davis’ experience as Vector’s AI project management intern

January 4, 2023

2023 Case Study

By Sacha Davis

Grad students learn to expect to be asked about what comes next. It often arrives in the form of “Do you have plans for a Ph.D.?,” “Have you started looking for jobs yet?,” or simply, “It’s been two years, when are you going to finish your master’s degree?” My trajectory has been unusual, and satisfying answers to these questions have proven elusive. I intended to experience as much as possible in search of a “eureka!” moment, where the perfect future job title would suddenly become apparent. It was this mindset that brought me to my most recent adventure: a four-month AI project management internship at the Vector Institute.

Getting here was not a straightforward path. I started my bachelor’s degree in Edmonton studying neuroscience and nearly flunked out before moving into bioinformatics. Soon after, I discovered my love for computer science, tech, and AI. I researched survival analysis, cancer genomics, natural language processing, disease heritability, and hospital readmission prediction. I led the Artificial Intelligence in Medicine Student Society where I managed volunteers, ran medical AI projects, and directed student conferences. I started my computing science master’s degree at the University of Alberta and completed a machine learning scientist internship. I pivoted my thesis project and pivoted it back again. I tutored, TA-ed, and at Amii (one of Vector’s two sister institutes) I delivered courses. When I saw Vector’s project management internship posting, the vision of my perfect “eureka!” moment again played in the back of my head.

Upon starting, I did a lot of the typical intern stuff — orientation day, familiarizing myself with the team, learning more about Vector and meeting my amazing mentor Mjaye Mazwi, a Staff Physician at the SickKids hospital with a health analytics lab on the side. During my onboarding however, something about the way interns were paired with projects stuck out to me. Rather than leaning on my technical background by giving me a project related to topics I had specific experience with, my manager Andres Rojas allocated me towards Vector’s Managing AI Risk (MAIR) thought leadership project. 

MAIR brought together higher-ups from large banks, consulting companies, start-ups, government, and more to share their views on minimizing the potential harms of AI adoption. The discussions are currently being turned into whitepapers about managing AI risk through three lenses: emerging government regulations, model choice, and cybersecurity/data. The work — event planning, guiding conversation, note-taking, and knowledge distillation — didn’t require my background in natural language processing or health. However, I was repeatedly delighted to learn about parts of the tech world I hadn’t encountered in my primarily research-related roles, such as business, finance, policy, stakeholder management, and governance. Similarly, the other project management interns with more business-oriented backgrounds found similar success working alongside more technical projects.

This taught me the importance of flexibly designing (rather than stubbornly prescribing) people’s roles and allowing your team to grow into their potential. In fact, it was Andres who encouraged me to spend some of the final few hours of my internship crafting this blog post. One person’s efforts towards Vector’s mission (and the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy more broadly) strengthens the ecosystem and the organizations and people within it. I find this kind of big-picture thinking inspiring and it’s the lesson that will stick with me the most in any future leadership roles.

As you may have guessed, my answer to the question I mentioned earlier, — “what do you want to do when you finish school?” — has not magically become “project management”. Instead, I’d say my answer is now “I want to find a place where the unique fingerprint of my skill set is understood and appreciated, and then dive in headfirst.” My Vector experience has exemplified this in more ways than I had imagined. I’ve captured event logistics in pseudocode, penned insights from CEOs, trouble-shot cloud storage solutions, obsessed over perfect turns-of-phrases, spearheaded social events for interns and students, sculpted the brain of the MaRS Pumpkin Carving Contest first-prize-winning gourd, and now, finally, shared my experiences with all of you.

Throwing yourself into a new role or community can be intimidating, but my experience and the people that I have met during this internship have been truly world-class. Although I’m returning to Edmonton to finish my studies, according to my maximum likelihood estimate, the Vector Institute has not seen the last of me — not by more than 1600 miles.

Click here for more information about Vector’s internship program.


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