Undergraduate researcher's unlikely path to Ivy League

Felix Sosa, 24, a senior computer science major, stands in Harris Corporation Engineering Center where he spends most of his time doing artificial intelligence research. Sosa has been invited back to Harvard University and MIT as a visiting student in spring to continue his research in computational cognitive science. Photo by Shayla Phillips.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University have an acceptance rate of under 10 percent, yet a 2.97 GPA and ambition landed UCF senior Felix Sosa in the heart of academic prestige.

As a child, Felix Sosa was infatuated by the mind, how it worked and why people did the things they did. He wanted to be a psychiatrist, but ended up going down a different path in his collegiate career.

Sosa, 24, was invited by MIT and Harvard University to come to Massachusetts this upcoming spring as a visiting student to finish up his research in computational cognitive science.

His research in computational cognitive science is a "mathematical calculation model of moral judgement," Sosa said. "Given a certain stimulus, my model can predict 91 percent accurately of what you’re going to say about [said stimulus]."

This research has only been the most recent of his endeavors as an undergraduate researcher majoring in computer science.

Sosa started at UCF as a biomedical science major where he shadowed physicians and surgeons. He had aspirations of entering the medical field until one day during shadowing he saw a glimpse into his current passion.

“I started to look at all this technology. It’s cool that [the surgeon] is talented, but if it wasn’t for any of these machines this person on this table would be dead,” Sosa said. “I realized that if I wanted to help people, if I wanted to make a big impact on the world I should really focus on developing technology."

Sosa developed a special interest in artificial intelligence (AI) in spring 2015. He sat in on a graduate-level course focused on neuro-evolution taught by Kenneth Stanley, a UCF professor in the Department of Computer Science.

“Felix came to me as an undergrad looking for research opportunities,” Stanley said.

Unable to register for the course, Sosa took it upon himself to develop a mentor/mentee relationship with Stanley where they exchanged research papers and worked in labs together to develop projects in AI.

“Felix is at a stage where he is rapidly progressing as he soaks up knowledge and diverse views from across the field of AI,” Stanley added.

Because of this rapid progression Sosa was left feeling dissatisfied from an undergraduate AI course he took that spring, so he created a syllabus outlining six lectures surrounding AI.

His lectures landed him the position of director of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence (SIGAI), which is a smaller organization branching off the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

“Previously before Felix came in I was running SIGAI for about three years prior as a workshop-only group. But Felix came in and suggested that we transfer to a lecture/workshop group so that we could teach concepts from the ground up so that people with less experience could understand it,” said Richard DiBacco, a 22-year-old senior majoring in computer science and mathematics.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Brains, Minds, Machines funded these sessions for fall 2016 and spring 2017.

This chain of events led him to meet the diversity coordinator from MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences where he taught graduate students and networked with professors from both Harvard and MIT.

“I did as much as I can to show people that I am worth more than my GPA and that I am an asset if you put me in a laboratory,” Sosa said.

Sosa advises students that “if you are unsure about reaching out to professors because of a number on a piece of paper, I want you to realize you're worth just as much to the scientific community as someone with a 4.0 [GPA] and the people at the top of academia actually understand this – they really do.”

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