Solution Seeker

Sagar Ashok Daswani (CPS ’20) uses big data to help companies and communities thrive.

“I’ve always been interested in solving problems,” says Sagar. “I especially like business problems. My family liked to talk in numbers.”

In his pre-teen years, Daswani, whose family is in the clothing business, could often be found with a Rubik’s Cube in his hands. In high school in Gujarat, India, he took a coding class, got excited about algorithms, and built his own Sudoku game. In his first year as an undergraduate at Dharamsinh Desai University in Nadiad, India, he learned how to build cloud-hosted websites. Then he noticed that students in the small town where he lived were having trouble accessing books, electronics, lab supplies and other educational materials they needed for school. So, as a sophomore studying computer science, he launched, a nonprofit designed to make it easier for students to get such items. With word-of-mouth buzz and a logo depicting a speeding delivery truck trailing Hot Wheels-style flames, the idea soon took off.

“A couple of friends and I saw a problem and said, ‘there needs to be a solution,’” Daswani says. “We programmed it from end to end, building a proper e-commerce website. We managed inventory and projects, and we hired students. Now, people can get these things delivered to their doorstep.”

The experience, Daswani says, was instructive.

“We wanted the thrill of entrepreneurship, and to see how big and small companies put it together and build a great product,” he says. “We converted the startup into a student-entrepreneurs organization, and we recruited students from the junior class. Then we expanded to other colleges. It’s a way for students to learn entrepreneurial skills—soft skills, business strategies, how to handle credit. We had applied what we learned at school to a practical problem.”

The following year, as a senior, Daswani again applied the tools he had gained in an academic setting to generate a business solution. As a software engineering intern at the Indian Space Research Organisation—the Indian equivalent of NASA—he used the Java programming language to engineer a “Monte Carlo” simulation to predict the effect of high-energy solar winds on the functioning and survival of a “sand detection box” inside the planetary-surface exploration devices known as rovers.

“To increase a rover’s lifespan,” Daswani says, “we integrate different materials—gold, copper, aluminum, sand, other things. Then you bombard it with high energy particles to see what will happen: Will the particles get inside? Will they destroy the circuit? To carry that out in real time is very, very expensive. So, I created a simulation, and it reduced the cost by a lot, and they’re going to be using it. It was a fun experience.”

With a bachelor’s degree in hand and several big problem-solving successes under his belt, Daswani’s next goal was to find a graduate school that would support his passion. A cousin who was attending Northeastern suggested he explore the programs at the College of Professional Studies, and when Daswani heard about Northeastern’s commitment to experiential learning, he was instantly intrigued.

“My cousin told me about how, at Northeastern, you get to interact with real-world business problems to help an organization,” Daswani says, “and how there are learning problems you can get your hands onto. I’ve always been interested in practical approaches—not research so much, but business problems. I started at Northeastern right after I finished my undergrad.”

At Northeastern, Daswani says, he decided he wanted to learn more about bridging the gap between technical and business users of technology, and he designed his program of study accordingly. He took courses on the foundations and applications of AI, intermediate and predictive analytics, and data visualization—anything that he thought might help him learn about the practical applications of big data. He participated in no less than four real-world projects, building his skills by helping a medical device company optimize its freight system, digitizing historical documents for a nonprofit, using big data to assess startup survival for a crowdfunding company, and working with a blockchain and healthcare company to provide solutions for their client physicians.

He also started to make connections.

“One of the great things that happened at Northeastern,” Daswani says, “is that I was introduced to so many different professors—not only in the College of Professional Studies, but across the University.”

That, he says, stood him in good stead when he and other students wanted to start a campus organization to encourage and support the exploration of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The result, AI Skunkworks at Northeastern University, came about through a collaboration among students and faculty. On its website, the organization describes itself as “a group of people who research and develop Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning projects primarily for the sake of innovation and learning.” With the support of the University, the group provides members (who playfully refer to themselves as “skunks”) with open-mics, mentorship opportunities, workshops, seminars, hack-a-thons, and other events exploring the implications and potential of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and Deep Learning, a subset of machine learning that involves artificial neural networks driven by algorithms and is a special interest of Daswani’s.

“I delivered a workshop myself on neural networks and concepts of deep learning,” he says. “That was an opportunity to bring my expertise and share it with other students and help them learn more about it.”

He also organized a NASA space hackathon and, in the course of these and other projects, Daswani’s leadership skills and commitment to the Northeastern community earned him a nomination for Outstanding Graduate Student.

Those qualities—and his technical abilities—have not gone unrecognized in the wider world. Soon after graduating from the College of Professional Studies with a master’s degree in Analytics, Daswani applied for and landed a job as a junior software engineer and data scientist with Lattice Automation, a Boston startup that designs customized software for companies involved in synthetic biology.

“Our work at Lattice,” Daswani says, “is to build lab-automation software that helps scientists make the best use of data, so they can track performance and see what’s going on inside the lab. My role is to help build dashboards to provide the best possible interactive environment for biotech companies—it’s software for data scientists.”

The experiential learning model that he had encountered at the College of Professional Studies, Daswani says, is what prepared him for the job.

I got exposure to this kind of work through my capstone project at Northeastern, where I built a website that lets users visualize how a startup is performing and evaluate the chances of its survival, based on patterns in the historical data. This particular job also demanded that expertise, and I had experience working on a real project in the capstone. They liked that.”

The opportunity to participate in that kind of hands-on learning, Daswani says, is what led him to Northeastern in the first place. But he was also impressed by the diversity of the community he found there.

“I got a chance to work with people from many different backgrounds and cultures,” Daswani says. “In every company in the U.S. right now, there are people from different places, and it’s a great start to be interacting with different people to get to know more about their side of the story, their perspective. Being able to look at the bigger picture helps with any kind of work.”

So, what’s next for Daswani?

“I’m still new in this professional world,” he says, “so I’m not sure yet. But eventually I think I’d like to start my own company, where I can leverage AI, solve business problems, and bring value to the community. I’ve always been curious to implement what I learn academically in real time, to see how it can actually help to make change for a company—or in the world.”