An Interview with Ryan Lee

Young Scientists Journal team members, Dolapo, Dhruv, Nayyara and Mhairi recently had the opportunity to speak to Ryan Lee, Founder of h2hacks, about how he set up his organisation and about his passion for computer science.

As a senior at Great Neck South High School, Ryan is working to spread his passion for computer science throughout the world. He is a self-driven leader always eager to learn and expand his skill set so that he can make a social impact on his community using technology. He has helped build several award-winning projects like his smart garbage can, WALL-ECO, that sorts trash using machine learning, and his autonomous fire-fighting drone, Phoenix, that won the Best Hack for Resilience Prize at the University of Pennsylvania. Ryan is working to empower today\’s youth to become the pioneers of the future!   

Thanks for joining us today Ryan! Can you sum up h2hacks and what you do in a sentence?
h2hacks is a student-led organisation that empowers high school students to become more engaged in the STEM field and to use technology for social benefit.

How did you get started with h2hacks? What is the main thing that you wanted to achieve by starting this organisation?
For the past years, I have been frequenting hackathons and I noticed that they didn’t really have a purpose. So what I wanted to do with h2hacks, was to create pinpoint focused hackathons that have a clearly set field to innovate in, such as environmental conservation or medical advancements.  I wanted to give a purpose to the hackathon so that it can have an actual impact on our local communities.

Why technology? One of the h2hacks’ goals is to empower high school students to invent great changes with technology, why did h2hacks choose to focus on technology?
I think technology is definitely what’s going to be driving the future – I mean even today we see so many new innovations coming up. Today’s youth can be the proponents of this change, of this driving force. I think that by focusing on technology and giving students the tools and resources they need to get started in STEM, we can launch them onto this pathway to creating a better future so that a student of today can be the innovator of tomorrow. 

There are still a lot of people who aren’t as experienced when it comes to programming and computing, how do you think they can still take a big part in creating changes and giving back to their community?
In all of our events, we try to make them as beginner-friendly as possible. We try to make it approachable to those who’ve never coded before. For example, we run workshops that are targeted specifically towards beginners. These workshops would teach you computer science skills, like for example python, an easy-to-learn language, and we make our curriculum very approachable.

How do you think h2hacks has motivated teens and young innovators to contribute their ideas to solve some of the world\’s most significant issues?
In our first event, h2hacks Save the World, we’ve inspired some really innovative projects. For example, a team built a portable plug-in device called ‘Breathable’ that checks for the local air quality index with a variety of sensors, and another team created a soil IoT device to check crop hydration and soil moisture, while providing this information on a website for statistical analysis. I recommend new inventors to check out if they\’re struggling to finish their invention. h2hacks is all about providing an environment for young people to use their creativity and build things they can be proud of.

Where do you see h2hacks going in the future?
I formed partnerships with organisations like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, ThinkOcean Global, EarthEcho International, Sustainable United Neighborhoods, and more with my first event.  These organisations gave us a lot of credibility in the market and helped us impact more people. In the future with h2hacks, I want to take it beyond just hackathons. I’m planning on starting up another program where we’ll run workshops to introduce more students into programming and engineering concepts. I’m also in talks with various local politicians and tech companies to launch a mentorship program where we connect professionals and entrepreneurs with high school students to provide career guidance, internship opportunities, and startup support.

In your opinion, what makes a brilliant idea/project?
I think that a brilliant project is one that is able to actually make an impact in the real-world – something that can be used on a day-to-day basis and benefit as many people as possible.

How can a young researcher or STEM enthusiast grow and improve, or maybe start something like h2hacks, in a society that lacks interest in the area? What’s your advice for them?
I think technology is present in many aspects of our society now.  Even in an environment where technology isn’t as apparent, I would encourage you to search for opportunities anyways because for some things, you need to take the effort to look for them.  There’s a lot of online and local resources available to people around the world, and speaking from personal experience, I didn’t learn how to code from taking classes in school, rather, I taught myself by creating projects in my free time.  With each project I make, whether it’s a smart garbage can or an autonomous fire-fighting drone, I learn new skills which I can apply to my next project. 

What do you do when you’re not running h2hacks?
When I’m not running h2hacks, I’m usually brainstorming some more fun ideas to explore! Recently, I’ve been invested in machine learning and artificial intelligence. I’m currently learning how to use deep reinforcement learning with a robotic arm. And when I’m not working on my projects, I reach for some video games and get comfy with my pet cat! 

What do you think is the spirit of entrepreneurship?
I think the spirit of entrepreneurship is the willingness to take the risk to launch something, and then having the passion to see your idea through to the end. It’s always a risk of course, but the end reward makes it so worth it.

Would you be able to tell us a bit more about how your most recent h2hacks hackathon went, and what people did as part of that? 
It was a really great event! We had over 100 high school students from six different states attend.  We also had a variety of guest speakers, panelists, and judges from the Facebook Developer Circle, Sustainable United Neighborhoods, Make School, Crimson Education, ThinkOcean Global, and more.  An accomplishment I’m especially proud of is when in the opening ceremony, we asked how many of the participants were beginners, and around 40% raised their hands! I’m so happy to see so many students willing to come to our event and learn, despite never having coded or attended a hackathon before.

What are your plans for the next hackathons? Are you planning to scale this up to an international event?
We’re planning on running a medical theme next time around, and of course, all projects would be focused on creating innovations related to the medical field.  I’m very excited to see what our participants will create this time around! As for our expansion, I do want to increase our international reach. I had the idea of offering travel reimbursements to our attendees, but that will be in the future, when we secure more funding. 

Did you find it hard to get financial backing to make your idea a reality?
Not surprisingly, the hardest part of making this event happen was actually getting the money to run it in the first place! At first, fundraising was quite difficult with cold emails and phone calls, but a few months ago, I was able to make some great connections with people at various networking events like DeveloperWeek New York.  From there, I was able to negotiate custom sponsorship packages to suit their needs, and ended up raising a little over $7,000 in funds and product donations.

Finally, what advice would you give to a person who wanted to organise their sort of initiative?
I think to organise an initiative of your own, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to do.  Be organised and be prepared for any challenge you might face along your journey. It’ll be a lot of work at first, but once you get to the finish line, you’ll be so happy that you took the leap.

About the Authors

This interview was conducted remotely by YSJ Team members from around the world – Dhruv Pai (Production Team) from USA, Dolapo Bolinda (Ambassador to England) from England, Nayyara Parsa (Ambassador to Indonesia) from Indonesia and Mhairi McCann (Chief Editor) from Scotland.

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