Better Know a Classmate: Eugene Wu

At only 26 years of age, Eugene Wu is already an expert in the design of computer databases. He’s a fifth-year PhD student at MIT’s world-renowned Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Wu has published sixteen scholarly pieces (the first in 2004, when he was only 18), and has balanced his academic study with internships at Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and IBM.

Yet Wu didn’t start using computers in any serious capacity until he took a computer class in high school. Computers weren’t easily accessible, outside of basic word processing and the occasional educational game in an elementary school classroom. Wu’s story underscores the power of advanced educational opportunities, and the long-term ramifications of these encounters early in a career.

Wu has wisely used his summers to advance his education and career. When he was still in high school in Berkeley, California, Wu spent his summers taking college classes at nearby UC Berkeley. By the time he graduated, he had finished the pre-requisites for Computer Science, which allowed him to get a running start his freshman year of college.

The summer after his freshman year also proved to be a pivotal time. After being turned down by Microsoft and a couple of other computer scientists he sought to work with, a Teaching Assistant from one of his classes recruited him to work on a database project. The project proved very successful, and spawned most of his following undergraduate research.

He’s a Teacher

Wu has rounded out his scholarship by actively teaching others. After finishing his Master’s degree, Wu traveled to the Middle East to coach Israeli and Palestinian students in a program called Middle East Education through Technology (MEET). He mentored teams of high school seniors as they worked together on technology projects. Wu’s also taught a course on introduction to Java, which is now listed in MIT’s Open Courseware. He also created a course on Data Literacy, which ended up training biologists, doctors, and other professionals across disciplines to better understand their professions’ data.

He’s an Athlete

In addition to his graduate and teaching work, Wu also appears to have a life outside of the academy. He’s traveled the West Coast playing in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, and designed the jersey for MIT’s Ultimate team, the Grim Beavers.

He’s a Developer

For an earlier assignment in his Participatory News course, Wu built a Chrome browser extension called IdeaPrint to track his media diet, as measured by the major websites he visited most. Offline, though, he admits that he primarily reads comics, not books. His preferred genres are Japanese and Chinese manga and graphic novels. In the face of his workload, Wu struggles to keep up with popular culture and world news.

He’s an Artist

The comic books inform Wu’s artistic side. When he’s not using people to crowdsource database queries, he’s drawing. A housemate, who asked to remain anonymous because she lives with Wu, remarked that he has a talent for drawing and noticing the details: “Like, he’ll draw a monster and name it “Gregory” and everybody will be like “YES, that is a GREGORY.” Wu’s illustrations have been commissioned by a group at the Media Lab, for which he was compensated with an Xbox 360 and several videogames.

Other students at MIT admire Wu’s combination of technical and artistic talents. Classmate Travis Rich remembers being impressed by Wu’s sketchbook illustrations, only to walk into a Python course and find that Wu was the instructor. “He’s like Brad Pitt,” says Rich. “He’s got it all.”

He’s an Eater

“Every time he eats food, it looks like he’s never eaten before in his life,” says Wu’s anonymous housemate. “A lot of people call him Kobayashi. His favorite item is this green chopper thing that chops up onions by putting it underneath the thing and then pumping vigorously. He made me by one too because there was a buy one get one free deal.”

What Else Will He Be?

For someone with so much under his belt already, Wu’s not entirely sure what the future holds in store. His experience has informed the parameters for his next moves, though. He’d prefer to work in a consumer-facing organization rather than academia, and his experience with the giants of the internet has inspired him to work at a smaller organization. He’s considering possibilities involving the news and media worlds, either in the form of startup or nonprofit.

Future plans could involve Wu’s desire to improve the news media, and could specifically address reader and producer biases. Wu’s concerned that context is often missing in individual news pieces, where one data point is presented without the related trends and information. As a human, he says, we should really only have to read one or two articles per day, he says, rather than an entire Twitter stream.

But Most Importantly, Is He a Robot, Pirate, or Ninja?

“Robots are kind of clunky, you don’t want to go with that,” Wu says. “Pirates are out of date, and they don’t really have any abilities, other than like, being dirty and shooting guns, right? Ninjas require actual skill.”