Two CS Seniors Named Knights of St. Patrick, Top Grainger Engineering Student Honor

5/2/2020 3:34:56 PM Laura Schmitt, Illinois CS

Illinois Computer Science seniors Nupoor Gandhi and Caren Zeng were among the 11 students selected as 2020 Knights of St. Patrick, a Grainger College of Engineering distinction that recognizes leadership, excellence in character, and exceptional contributions to the college and its students.  

Nupoor Gandhi
Nupoor Gandhi
Gandhi has positively impacted countless Grainger students the last four years primarily through her leadership with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). As president this past year, Gandhi has led the efforts to grow the organization, while developing and implementing standardized metrics to track that growth.

According to Gandhi, SWE membership has increased 33 percent from last year—going from 174 to 233 active members. “I’m proud of the growth we’ve had,” said Gandhi, who grew up in Cupertino, CA. “Our 11 committees have done great work.”

Gandhi also played a key role in the SWE Illinois chapter’s participation in the annual SWE conference last fall, where 50 Grainger engineering women joined 16,600 engineering students and professionals from 33 countries as they learned best practices for personal development to bring back to their local chapters. 

Since her freshman year, Gandhi has conducted research with Illinois CS professor ChengXiang Zhai trying to predict opioid abuse and outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections using real-time data from Twitter. This research resulted in two publications.

She put her CS skills to work in the summer of 2019 as a Fellow with Data Science for Social Good. One of only two undergraduates in the entire cohort of Fellows, she spent 12 weeks at Imperial College in London and Kampala, Uganda, building an information retrieval-based system for the non-profit agency Barefoot Law, which uses digital technology to empower people with free legal information.

The leader of Barefoot Law had ambitious plans to expand the organization’s services to more people, so he wanted the Fellows to explore using AI to help achieve that goal, said Gandhi.

“When we started the project, it took one lawyer, on average, 72 hours to respond to all the queries he or she received,” explained Gandhi. “The system we developed reduced response time down to 24 hours.”

After graduating in May, Gandhi will attend Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a PhD at the intersection of natural language processing and public policy.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be selected as a Knight,” Gandhi said. “I’m joining this group of people who are so accomplished and have a lot of character. I’ve also met many amazing people in SWE and in my research. I’m grateful to have learned from them.”

Caren Zeng
Caren Zeng
Caren Zeng has left her mark on engineering through the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and OTCR Consulting. A resident of Fremont, CA, she knew first-hand how challenging the high school-to-college transition could be when she arrived on campus in August 2016. 

She joined ACM and by spring semester she launched a new mentoring program through a partnership with Women in CS (WCS). ACM x WCS Mentorship program pairs incoming CS freshmen and transfer students with mentors who can help them get adjusted to college and explore all that the department has to offer. 

“As I recall, there wasn’t anything like it at the time,” said Zeng. “The program has reached over 300 students over the last three years and I’m excited to see how the program will evolve to best meet the students’ needs.”

Zeng soon took on leadership roles in ACM, serving on the Outreach team for HackIllinois, one of the most popular collegiate open-source hackathons in the country. She led branding and marketing efforts for the Reflections | Projections student-run technology conference. Near the end of her sophomore year, she was elected chair of ACM, serving in that role for a year. 

At the same time, Zeng became involved with OTCR Consulting, a premier student-run organization that enables U of I students to solve real-world problems for industry clients. She served on various initiatives and later became an executive partner. 

According to Zeng, OTCR Consulting is unique because students can learn key professional skills in both business and tech, regardless of their academic background. 

“The most essential skill today is being able to work with real-life data to make decisions,” she said. “When we were sourcing the 17 projects in my term as executive partner, each project had both a business strategy and a tech strategy component, many of which included conducting data analysis with Excel or programming."

Zeng is honored to be selected as a Knight.

“There are so many forces at this university that have helped build me up to the person I am now, and I’m grateful to be recognized for my efforts," Zeng said.

Later this summer, Zeng will join Google as part of the tech giant’s Associate Product Manager rotational program, where she’ll learn how to take a product from ideation to launch by working with diverse organizational teams like design, engineering, legal, and marketing. 

See the complete class of this year's Knights of St. Patrick.