Midpeninsula Post

How a rising Los Altos senior became a U.S. Department of Energy AlgaePrize finalist

Ashwin Mukherjee (left) and Rohan Chanani (right). (Courtesy Ashwin Mukherjee)

While most high schoolers were lounging at home last summer, Ashwin Mukherjee kept busy by creating an app that won second place in the Congressional App Challenge and placed top 15 in the U.S. Department of Energy’s AlgaePrize competition.

The rising Los Altos High senior built “Algaeorithm,” a web application that analyzes microscope images, in partnership with his cousin, Rohan Chanani. It all began when the two began attending online seminars on computational modeling and biotechnology through the Institute for Systems Biology, a non-profit research institution based in Seattle, to follow their interests in technology and biology.

At one of the webinars he attended, Mukherjee met research scientist Dr. Jake Valenzuela. Mukherjee said he was intrigued by Valenzuela’s work in the biotechnology field, and along with Chanani, reached and asked if he’d be interested in doing a project together. 

Valenzuela agreed and proposed a project to automate the process of counting cells. According to Mukherjee, Valenzuela said he wasn’t aware of anyone who had gone about automating the process but also said it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to do. 

From there, Chanani and Mukherjee set their minds on creating a web application that would take microscope images and return useful data like cell count and concentration, with Valenzuela as their project advisor. The majority of their project, dubbed “Algaeorithm,” was developed in the weeks following.

"Algaeorithm"'s user interface alows students to input images and information. (Courtesy Ashwin Mukherjee)

Once the project had been in development for a few months, Mukherjee and Chanani decided to submit it to the Congressional App Challenge, a computer science project competition run by the House of Representatives. Mukherjee said he and Chanani thought it would be a great opportunity to showcase “Algaeorithm.”

Throughout October, Chanani worked on refining the application and adding new features, such as time-sensitive images and growth modeling, while Mukherjee created a video to explain the application algorithm and the broader problems they said they hope “Algaeorithm” will solve.  

The duo played to their strengths as individuals: Chanani dealt with the technical side, while Mukherjee drove the creative process, which they agreed allowed them to be more productive.

In January, Mukherjee and Chanani heard back from the competition: they ended up getting second place. 

“That was kind of when ‘Algaeorithm’ kind of went from just being a pretty small thing to something that was more of a focus for the two of us,” Chanani said. 

Chlamydomonas algae cells annotated by the Algaeorithm neural network. The dark blue boxes represent which cells the algorithm identified. (Courtesy Ashwin Mukherjee)

Eventually, the project came to a short period of standstill. Mukherjee and Chanani were still actively trying to implement “Algaeorithm” in schools to receive feedback on how the application worked in real life, but they weren’t sure what the next step was, or if they even wanted to continue. It took an email from Valenzuela about the AlgaePrize competition to get the project moving again. 

“At first, we were a bit hesitant to apply [to AlgaePrize] because we’re both juniors,” Mukherjee said. “We had a lot of our plates … and then also the competition has an 18-month timeline, so it seemed like a super big commitment. But ultimately, we decided to register because we thought you cannot get a more relevant competition to what we’re working on than AlgaePrize.” 

And clearly, they made the right decision: Months later, after building and submitting their project proposal, they found out they were selected as finalists.

Mukherjee and Chanani will continue to work with algae in a physical lab setting at the Institute of Systems Biology to expand “Algaeorithm”’s capabilities this summer. Next April, the pair will attend the AlgaePrize competition event, where they’ll present “Algaeorithm” and have the opportunity to meet the 14 other AlgaePrize teams and experts in the industry. 

“The U.S. Department of Energy is one of, if not the largest energy organization in the entire world, so being able to work with them is just a super useful and an experience that we’re super grateful for,” Mukherjee said. 

“I think when we first started this project, being finalists in a competition like AlgaePrize was way beyond what we initially expected,” Chanani said. “What I’d encourage other students to do is if you’re on the fence about starting a project like this, just go for it because it’s probably going to turn out better than you expect. The hardest part is always starting.”

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