Tzofi Klinghoffer did not have a clear cut vision of what he might want to do with an engineering degree. Nine years later, he’s a PhD candidate and Draper Scholar at MIT Media Lab. His career is in Artificial Intelligence (AI)—a field that scarcely existed when he graduated—a field he says Athenian uniquely prepared him for.
“One of my favorite science classes at Athenian was Advanced Chemistry with Megan Leich. That led me to explore classes in chemical engineering,” Tzofi said of his time as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. “I also took a computer science class based on my experience on Athenian’s FIRST robotics team with Eugene Mizusawa. Robotics led me to computer science, which ultimately led me to Artificial Intelligence (AI).”
Specifically, Tzofi nurtured his interest in two sub-fields: computer vision and computational imaging. The former deals with teaching computers to understand images. The latter deals with creating cameras that can do seemingly impossible things, like see around corners. His research has applications in virtual reality and beyond, and has been featured in news outlets, such as MIT News. A well-timed college internship gave Tzofi his first handson experience. “In 2017, I received a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hollings Scholarship that sent me to MIT to try to apply machine learning to images. Up until that point, humans were manually counting the number of fish in images to inform the environmental monitoring of fish populations. My project was to figure out a way to use technology to count the fish.”The research led to a full-time job offer as an AI researcher at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center chartered to apply advanced technology to problems of national security. During that time, he worked on drone detection technology and AI to improve the accuracy of medical imaging diagnostics. “It was a formative experience,” Tzofi said. “It showed me how I could take a problem, figure out a solution, and see it deployed.”
Tzofi always knew he was interested in graduate school, but wanted to try industry first. Work on Amazon’s Alexa, autonomous driving at NVIDIA, and extended reality at Meta led to insights about research vs. industry. “The priorities of a research lab are very different from the priorities of a corporation,” he reflected.. “I think Athenian really pushes people to think about what they are contributing to society. I realized I could make a greater impact going back and doing a PhD than I could staying in industry.”
Thoughtfulness around the impact of his work is only one of Tzofi’s many takeaways from Athenian. He counts the communication skills he learned here as critical to his work. “I still remember April Smock’s 10th grade history class, when we had to write our Cold War paper. I remember being stressed out about that, but it pushed me to be better in ways that stuck with me. Clear written communication is critical to my research.”
Most people with an advanced degree in biostatistics don’t work in companies like L’Oréal. Most people aren’t encouraged to cultivate both left- and right-brain thinking. Most people didn’t moonlight at Vogue and The Reformation while interning at Amgen and studying computational biology. Most people aren’t JJ Lee.
Currently the Director of Product Marketing and Innovation for L’Oréal Skinceuticals, JJ was recently named by Forbes as a Top 10 Inspiring Woman Business Leader to Watch. She leads a team focused on key customer needs and developing new products. “Sometimes it felt like I was building two resumes,” she said of her time interning in multiple fields as an undergrad at UCLA. “But when I graduated, I wanted to bridge the gap between my creative and scientific experience. That led me to cosmetics.”
JJ credits some of her courage to branch out to her time at Athenian, where she began as a middle schooler and continued through twelfth grade. “A lot of my classmates wanted to take a full course load of AP classes, but I remember really wanting the opportunity to just do art,” she recalled. “I was focused on STEM for so long, but it was Athenian having electives—learning Fashion Design with Sally Baker—that allowed me to investigate whether I wanted to do something creative…I remember going to Sally and saying, ‘Please can we do something in fashion design? What if I told you I had five other people interested?’ So Sally created a class.”
Beyond her own experience with Sally, she recalls similar teacher responses. “Peter Tamaribuchi gave my friend the opportunity to direct. It wasn’t even about nudging him to allow us to do a certain play. She wanted the opportunity, and Peter said yes. A lot of times in my career, I’ve heard people say ‘no, no, no.’ But nobody learns with those kinds of constraints. I loved that Athenian let us be heard.”
Now, JJ lives in New York City, where she earned her Master’s degree from Columbia and stayed on to launch her post-graduate career. L’oréal’s technology incubator was her jumping point. Prior to leading her current team, she spent six years integrating hardware and software with cosmetics. Using technology from Clarisonic and other brands, JJ worked on fulfillment lines that were individualized to customers.
“I think hands-on experience is so important. What we learn in school is so hypothetical, it’s hard to understand it unless you put it into action. I say this on college panels a lot. I’ve had some exposure to students from Northeastern, which has a fifth year in which you have to do an internship. I love that.”
Along those lines, she encourages young people to find ways to jump into project work—to explore innovation and problem solving through internships and entrepreneurship competitions similar to L’Oréal’s in-house pitch war, Brandstorm. “There’s so much you can’t pick up from classroom learning,” she concluded. “There are things you have to experience yourself.”