Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

Making an Impact During a Gap Year: Polygence Scholar Arihant Choudhary Combines Computer Science and Climate Change for College Success

7 minute read

At Polygence, we always love hearing great student stories and experiences with our research program. We also love to hear about our students getting accepted into their dream colleges. But our aspirations for helping students go beyond just doing a research project and getting into college. We believe that Polygence’s programs help students flourish in college and make incredible strides in personal development so that they’re well prepared to chase their career and life goals. Arihant Choudhary’s story is a great example of this, and we’ve been following Arihant’s journey from doing a Polygence project in 2020 to now studying computer science at UC Berkeley and working as a lead undergraduate researcher in two labs. We wanted to share Arihant’s story to inspire other students and show what’s possible when you’re resilient, actively get involved in projects, and believe in yourself.

A New Path

Arihant grew up in Kolkata, a city in eastern India. Arihant’s parents did not attend college, and for Arihant he didn’t really know what to expect out of college either. He was however interested in computer science and had his breakthrough moment in exploring computer science when he built Academic Reserve, a website for students across schools to access school-wise practice papers, mock exams and form digital study groups. In the past, students at his school would have to line up at the library and wait hours for the librarian to make copies of the papers and mock exams. Arihant was hoping to do similar projects while at college. But when Arihant applied for college in 2019/2020, he was rejected by every single school. The result was extremely disappointing for Arihant and his family. 

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But this was also the start of a new path for Arihant. He chose to take a gap year after graduating from high school in 2020 and pursued projects on his own. During his gap year, Arihant worked with the Global Shapers Community at Kolkata for their cyclone-relief campaign. Kolkata is plagued with annual cyclones and working on the relief campaign was his first experience of witnessing the impacts of climate change. Taking it a step further, Arihant took 13 courses on Coursera and educated himself on sustainable development. What’s impressive is that even after a recent disappointment, Arihant bounced back and showed great resilience by actively getting involved in projects he was interested in. 

In June of 2020, Arihant was then introduced to Polygence by his college admission counselor. Eager to continue building on his interest in climate change, he got started soon after on his own research project in Poygence’s core program. This was Arihant’s first time doing a research project, which was a bit intimidating given that he didn’t even know what a citation was at the time and had no idea what a research paper would look like. However, Arihant had the help of his Polygence mentor Tristan Ballard, a Stanford PhD in earth systems science who was interested in developing AI/ML models for social good and sustainability, so there was good alignment of interests between mentor and mentee. Arihant was interested in data science, so Tristan proposed that they do predictive modeling for monsoons in Kolkata and assess the impact of climate change on agriculture. Arihant analyzed historical precipitation and temperature trends, as well as seasonal cycles of temperature and precipitation to see if they had changed over time. The project required patience, as Arihant started learning the programming language R from scratch during his project and with the help of Tristan also slowly began understanding how to put together a research paper. Further, Arihant achieved an impressive feat of analyzing a petabyte of climate data throughout his project (a petabyte is over a million gigabytes)! In fact, when applying to internships later, Arihant would mention the word petabyte when talking about his project and that word in itself was really impressive to his interviewers.

Throughout the project, Arihant was learning a lot and also able to apply some of the knowledge he had gained from his Coursera courses. He also learned how to work well with his mentor and to never be afraid to ask questions. Arihant had a great experience overall with Tristan, mentioning that “he made understanding complex topics simple, the approach to writing long research papers natural and easy (as compared to strenuous and difficult), and made learning fun.” At the end of his Polygence experience, Arihant had a great project that he could proudly showcase to others and he made sure to do just that when he started applying to colleges again.

College Admissions: Part 2

Arihant began the college application process for a second time, but this time with a research project under his belt and new research, writing, and data analysis skills. Arihant wanted to emphasize what he’d accomplished in his gap year, and in his college application he included his Polygence research project as the #1 activity in the Activities section of his Common App and also mentioned his research abstract in the additional information section. He also differentiated himself in his “Why” essays for colleges, finding professors who were doing research similar to what he had done in his climate change Polygence project, and explaining in his essays how he was interested by the faculty who were pursuing research in a field he was excited about. This was a very unique aspect of Arihant’s essays that he felt wasn’t generic and would help him stand out to admissions. 

All this led to Arihant’s work and perseverance finally paying off! Arihant was accepted by UC Berkeley and chose to attend the school to study computer science. We believe that this a testament to Arihant’s resilience, as he sought to make the most of his gap year by learning about sustainability and computer science, and Polygence was able to help him along on that journey. As Arihant describes:

“I think my projects in my gap year had a huge impact on my college admission decision and Polygence was a huge part of that.”

Hitting His Stride in College

Arihant was not only accepted by a great school, but he also began to do impressive things once he got to Berkeley. After his Polygence project, Arihant fell in love with research and learned from Tristan about opportunities to do research in college. Arihant was intent on continuing to do research and even used his Polygence research project as part of his applications to research positions. He also now knew the importance of having a great research mentor and began looking on the Berkeley faculty page to find interesting research projects and reach out to those faculty members.

Arihant eventually came across Prof. Dan Garcia and found that it was the perfect fit. Now Arihant is a Lead Undergraduate Researcher in 2 labs under Prof Garcia - Computational Game Theory (called Gamescrafters) and CS Education (called ACE Lab). Through both labs, Arihant has been able to work on exciting projects, such as building software to play games and puzzles and feedback tools for computer science education, and he’s been able to level up his skills in computer science and artificial intelligence. For his research group’s feedback tool project, Arihant is presenting at the SIGCSE 2024 Technical Symposium, a renowned event supported by Google and Microsoft to address common problems amongst computer science educators. 

Just like during his gap year, Arihant has been able to approach college with a great mentality and seize the most out of his first few years, finding opportunities to learn from mentors and developing his passions by getting involved in exciting projects. 

Photo of Arihant Choudhary and his research lab at UC Berekeley
Arihant (middle row, second from left with grey jacket) with his Computational Game Theory research group at UC Berkeley, led by Professor Dan Garcia (front row, second from right in dark blue shirt).

What’s Next for Arihant

Arihant is expected to graduate from Berkeley in the spring of 2025, and he’s now interested in doing a graduate degree after and pursuing a career in artificial intelligence/machine learning. Arihant also started an internship with Intel on their design enablement team, where he’s helping design and develop chat assistants using large language models (LLMs) and text-to-speech (tts) libraries to support employee training.

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There’s so much more left to come in Arihant’s story as he continues his wonderful work in college and dives deeper into his interests. What we take away from Arihant’s story is that doing a research project in high school can be a great learning experience to help you build skills and learn what it’s like to work with a mentor, but more importantly it can also give you the confidence and momentum to start and tackle bigger projects or internships in high school. The thought of applying for and doing research in college can seem intimidating, but if you consider Arihant’s path of doing his own project in Kolkata and then doing a Polygence project analyzing a petabyte of data, college research can then seem more approachable. Experience builds on itself, so all that it takes is a spark to just get started! As Arihant himself describes, “I would say that my confidence has indeed increased with each new experience.” Arihant also now has a great sense of direction and what he’s passionate about and he still has two more years left in college to deepen those interests. We believe all of this can be summed up by Polygence’s motto, “Passion Propels You Further.” Congrats Arihant on your amazing progress and we’re excited to see what you do next!

If you're interested in learning more about Arihant’s various projects, check out his Github page!