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‘Aha’ Insights with AI: An Interview with Dr. Michelle Archuleta, RS21 Director of Data Science

Michelle Archuleta, Ph.D, RS21 Director of Data Science

Michelle Archuleta, Ph.D. is the Director of Data Science at RS21 and a leader in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Dr. Archuleta is an entrepreneur, inventor and practitioner of artificial intelligence with 15 years of experience, 6 pending patents, and numerous research papers published in top reviewed scientific journals. As the Director of Data Science, she leads RS21’s team of data scientists and ensures high quality data analytics across products.

I like to think about how we can use technology to make an impact for people who need innovation the most. I really believe we should leverage AI to help people who are experiencing hardships or difficulties.

Hi, Michelle. To get started, would you please share a little bit about yourself and past experience?

I have always done what I love and what I am most passionate about. In school, I was drawn to applied mathematics, computational sciences, and medicine. I started my career at the UNM Cancer Research Center, blending the fields of applied mathematics, oncology, and computer science into a dissertation for a PhD in chemical engineering.

My dissertation shed light on the spatio-temporal dynamics of receptor signaling in cancer. After UNM, I worked in Washington state for a while, and then I moved to Massachusetts to work as a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

One of the defining moments that propelled my career into cancer research was when my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was drawn into cancer research for two reasons:

  1. I wanted to make a difference for others who were experiencing the same anguish of a family member being diagnosed with cancer.
  2. And I always wanted to know more so I could be a better advocate for my grandmother in her battle with cancer.

On a trip back home to rural Colorado from Boston, MA, I was taken aback from the sights and sounds of two completely different worlds and the differences in social and economic opportunities and health inequities.

It then occurred to me that my journey in cancer research put me in a privileged class. I could speak to a doctor and ask all of the hard questions and essentially navigate my way to the best care. However, this is not possible for the vast majority of patients, and it certainly was not the case for my grandmother seeking healthcare in rural Colorado.

This gave me the idea for what would become AIpiphany, an AI natural language processing startup that transforms our most personal information — our health records — into plain actionable language.

In summary, my career has been about leveraging AI and machine learning to empower everyday people. That can be from working on drug development projects, to making predictions on resource allocation needs in South Sudan, or transforming electronic health records into meaningful and actionable language.

What was your experience as the founder of AIpiphany and leading an AI startup?

It was an amazing experience. I mean, of course when you do a startup, it’s sort of like an MBA on steroids, but AIpiphany was something I was very passionate about. We were funded in 2017 by the National Science Foundation, built out a really cool product, and piloted it with the University of Colorado.

Ultimately, I decided to postpone plans due to family health issues. Today, AIpiphany has taken more of a backseat, but it’s a project I care about, and want to see living in the world.

Since then, I have continued to find new interesting fields and knowledge to explore while delivering impactful work and using AI for good.

You use the phrase “AI for good”. Using data for good is one of RS21’s core values. What does this mean to you?

It means that I have found the right home with RS21. As an innovator and entrepreneur, I tend to focus on my end customer and trying to understand their experiences and struggles. I often gravitate to helping underserved and disadvantaged people in our society.

RS21 Values

Sometimes AI and new technologies are focused on gains and advances that only benefit a select group in our society. I think the opportunity is to bridge the disparities we see in society.

I like to think about how we can use technology to make an impact for people who need innovation the most. I really believe we should leverage AI to help people who are experiencing hardships or difficulties.

And we should be wary of technology intended to take jobs away, or things like deep fake videos that erode credibility and trust.

RS21 definitely aligns with my values and approach to technology and innovation. I’m super excited to be working on high impact projects and collaborating with the data science, UX/UI design, and software development teams to create solutions that consider and contribute to the whole story. The challenges that RS21 is tackling, from healthcare to hyperspace to community safety, really resonate with me.

How would you describe the benefits of AI in simple terms?

In simple terms, I would say AI is about automating decision-making processes that will help and serve humanity. The challenge and benefit of AI is really in the ethics and design. Is the intention really to do good?

The benefits and risks of AI are farther reaching than software development because algorithms have been trained but not explicitly told what to do. In this way, we get these aha insights that surprise us.

There are so many interesting discoveries with AI and data science. When I was working for a pharmaceutical company, for example, we would create algorithms and analyze data to help determine if pharmaceutical drugs should move forward to clinical trials. Supporting this type of important decision-making is valuable and rewarding.

What is happening in AI that is especially interesting to you right now?

I think some of the most interesting progress has been in using AI to tackle problems that have been near impossible to solve. The best example of this that I can give is with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). The failure rate for AD therapeutics is 99%. I remember in 2014 hearing the news of AD drugs failing phase III clinical trials, one after another. This is absolutely devastating news for patients, and at this point a pharmaceutical company has spent $2B on the failed drug.

One of the challenges with AD drug development is that when a patient develops symptoms, there may be too much irreversible damage, and a therapeutic provides little to no benefit. AI is being used to predict earlier onset of the disease so AD drugs can be prescribed earlier. This can be a game changer for AD therapeutics.

Speaking of learning, is there a podcast or book you’re enjoying right now?

I do like digital health podcasts, and I have been listening to Passionate Pioneers with Mike Biselli.

About Dr. Archuleta

Michelle Archuleta lives in Colorado with her daughter and husband. She enjoys traveling and learning about new cultures, hiking, biking, camping, riding horses, and being outdoors.

About RS21

RS21 is a rapidly growing data science company that uses artificial intelligence, design, and modern software development methods to empower organizations to make data-driven decisions that positively impact the world. Our innovative solutions are insightful, intuitive, inspiring, and intellectually honest. With offices in Albuquerque, NM and Washington, DC, RS21 is an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing company for two consecutive years and a 2020 Fast Company Best Workplace for Innovators.

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RS21 is revolutionizing decision-making with data + AI. We believe the power of data can unleash human potential and make a better world. Visit www.rs21.io.