ORNL Graduate Student Research Profile: Ty Austin
Ty Austin, pictured by the Summit supercomputer, recently interned in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Computational Sciences and Engineering Division through the GEM Fellowship Program.

Ty Austin has dealt with his share of adversity.

Growing up in a low-income neighborhood, Austin lost four friends to gun violence before graduating high school. “I felt blessed to be alive and (realized) how close I was to suffering the same fate,” Austin recalled. “As a result, while I barely graduated high school, I studied hard in junior college, faced great odds and used naysayers as motivation to succeed.”

Austin went on to attend Texas A&M University and later earned master’s degrees in the fields of architecture, planning and design computation at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As he progressed in his academic and professional career, a one-word motto spurred him on: persevere.

Austin brought that same persistence to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), where he recently participated in a summer internship through the GEM Fellowship Program.

Under the mentorship of Arvind Ramanathan, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the Computational Sciences and Engineering Division and the Health Data Sciences Institute, Austin examined how deep and machine learning can be used to detect protein irregularities through a process known as variable autoencoders. Researchers could use the variable autoencoders process to develop a cure to certain diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.

Through the GEM internship, Austin bolstered his overall knowledge of computer science and honed his skills in the Python™ and TensorFlow™ programming languages. He also made lasting connections with fellow interns and ORNL staff.

“I think this was truly a blessing to be here at such an amazing institute and say I was a part of such groundbreaking research Dr. Ramanathan is undertaking,” he said. “Plus, it’s a break from designing cities so I can build proficiency in computer science.”

With three master’s degrees to his credit, Austin is pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science and social behavior. His thesis focuses on social media participatory design (SMPD). SMPD is an integrated 3D parametric modeling and social networking system where social media platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn are primary modes of communication and connectivity among design professionals and community leaders. ­­

“Far too often, I hear individuals say that dealing with cultural and social woes is daunting,” Austin said. “Thus, I have developed an interest in merging computational research data with architecture and planning to increase social awareness and equity.”

Austin’s interest in social and cultural equity in design stems from his experiences as a person of color. During his time at MIT, he founded a graduate diversity and inclusion committee that focused on making sure all students had proper support and representation regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. For his efforts, Austin was awarded the Mens et Manus Award upon graduation, one of the highest honors bestowed to any MIT student.

“To me, this is not just about focusing on diversity and inclusion because it’s a popular topic these days,” Austin said. “The reason this impacts me so much is because I have always experienced a lack of support and belonging simply because of my racial and cultural differences. It has uprooted my career numerous times in many ways. The purpose of my research is to see how we can be more inclusive as a society.”

The GEM Fellowship Program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium and ORNL. The National GEM Consortium is a network of leading corporations, research institutions and universities that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in STEM fields. The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.