Big ideas don’t need to have big beginnings: some of the best have started with a single person passionate about creating change.
Enter Karishma Muthukumar. In high school, she earned a competitive summer internship at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, created a program to help patients communicate using emojis, and launched a non-profit to educate and provide outreach on the brain, brain disease, and brain injury. Now a cognitive sciences major at UCI, Muthukumar was named the 2019-20 Dalai Lama scholar for her plan to change hospital waiting room experiences for patients and their families. And that’s only the beginning. She wants to create empathy-based artificial intelligence – helpful technology applications that also improve human connection, lessen anxiety, and reduce loneliness. She pitched her plan as part of the National Science Foundation’s 2026 Idea Machine, and in May, the undergrad learned she’s one step closer to making her idea a reality. Her project was one of 33 finalists selected from an initial pool of 800 applicants, and if selected as one of four winners, Muthukumar’s big idea will help guide scientific research objectives in the United States for the next decade.
Not bad for an 18-year-old college freshman.
Emojis as communication
Though only 18, Muthukumar already has significant experience in studying the brain. When she was 14, she was selected as a Sharon Disney Lund Medical Intelligence and Innovation Institute (MI3) summer intern at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). Interns were able to meet regularly with mentors as well as shadow physicians on patient rounds.
As part of the program, interns were challenged to create a medical innovation. Muthukumar’s idea was an emoji-based communication board for patients with locked-in syndrome who are mentally aware, but unable to move or verbally communicate. Her project, OutLoud, uses brain-computer interface technology to allow patients to select emojis to communicate needs and emotions.
In 2016, OutLoud won the abstract competition for Artificial Intelligence and Big Data in the International Society of Pediatric Innovation’s annual Pediatrics 2040 conference, making her the youngest winner on record.
Muthukumar’s work with OutLoud also led to her being named to the 2018 Young Innovators to Watch, a national scholarship program by Living in Digital Times and Lenovo. The project gave her the opportunity to begin working with UCI’s Brain Computer Interface Lab where she continues to advance her research.
While interning at CHOC, Muthukumar made a strong impression on the doctors with whom she worked, specifically Dr. Anthony Chang and Dr. Sharief Taraman.
Dr. Taraman, pediatric neurologist, was particularly struck by Muthukumar’s intelligence: “Dr. Chang & I knew immediately that she was a bright young mind and innovative thinker.”
Taraman continues to follow Muthukumar’s work, and looks forward to what she will accomplish: “I am continually impressed with her commitment to medical intelligence and innovation and expect her to continue to move forward the field of medicine. Furthermore, I am humbled that I was able to play even a small part in motivating, mentoring, and guiding her.”
Muthukumar is equally grateful for the mentorship and guidance she received from Chang and Taraman during the internship.
“It motivated me to think beyond the future,” she says.
As if she wasn’t already busy enough, Muthukumar also founded - while still in high school - Synapse Connection, a non-profit corporation whose mission reflects her calling of neuroscience education and outreach. Synapse seeks to educate and provide outreach on the brain, brain disease and brain injury. Synapse organizes activities such as painting with Alzheimer’s patients, brain awareness exhibits and neuroscience workshops for elementary students.
One particular initiative by Synapse included establishing a partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association of Orange County. With this partnership, Synapse co-facilitated Painting with Mom through which patients with Alzheimer’s and their primary caregiver partner with student volunteers and paint together, enhancing human connection and providing stress relief for patients.
The Dalai Lama Scholarship
In each of Muthukumar’s endeavors, compassion and empathy are common components. This clarity of purpose helped her earn the UC Irvine XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship. This scholarship, which will run the 2019-20 school year, exists “to support exceptional students committed to advancing the values of compassion, contemplation, courage, interconnectedness, collaboration, humility and service.”
The award comes with a $6,000 grant, a $10,000 UCI scholarship, and support for Muthukumar to attend the Contemplative Leadership Assembly at the University of Virginia where she’ll meet with scholars from around the world to gain one-on-one advice and perspective on her project.
She'll be working on a program to change the patient experience while in a medical waiting room. She notes that the experience is often stressful, the environment is staged, and patients and their families are facing what she refers to as an “existential crisis.”
Her project will not only address the physical layout of a chosen waiting room, but will also place college students in the environment to provide support to patients during stressful experiences. Muthukumar plans to start a campus organization and partner with the Center for Medical Humanities at UCI to train the students her project will deploy. She envisions that these “college students will not just hang out in the lobby - they will directly contribute to conversations and really impact someone’s whole experience.”
Working with Muthukumar on this project is Jayne Lewis, professor of English at UCI.
“I am delighted and proud to be sponsoring Karishma's waiting room project--a project that creatively and pragmatically examines what it truly means to be a patient,” Lewis says. “For to be a patient is to be pushed into patience--to wait. When it comes to the waiting room, this is to do so on a periphery of medical experience that has gone largely unexamined, its frustrations and challenges imperfectly acknowledged and its possibilities undeveloped.”
“Karishma is quite possibly the brainiest student I’ve ever come across,” she adds. “This comes at no expense to her heart: Karishma is energetically dedicated to using both her brain and her knowledge about the brain to improve the lives of people who suffer. All of which makes her an absolute model of compassion and social engagement.”
Her big idea
With her Big Idea project, Muthukumar wants to extend her interests in empathy, compassion and the human experience to technological developments that impact the world and positively affect people’s lives.
“Augmenting physician care in a medical environment, providing structured support for both students and teachers in an educational setting, recognizing mental fatigue while driving - technology that promotes human values has many possible uses,” she says.
At the same time, her Big Idea endeavors to balance some of the negative side effects of technology.
“The potential uses of AI are many, but its application in our everyday lives is faced with obstacles,” she says. The first of these is public perception, which Muthukumar recognizes as needing to be addressed. “The perception is that AI is the enemy. We definitely need to change that.”
Another obstacle is siloed technology development that creates unbalanced results. Her project promotes an interdisciplinary approach to developing AI that includes the fields of psychiatry, cognitive sciences, neuropsychology, computer science, data science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, education and more.
When she learned of the NSF 2026 Idea Machine on social media, Muthukumar knew that this was the chance to present her idea. The next phase of the competition will narrow the field to 12, with those selected being invited to a virtual interview. Four grand prize winners will be named in the fall at an awards presentation in Washington, D.C. where they’ll receive $26,000 to further develop their ideas.
Looking to the future
When asked about her future plans, Muthukumar speaks with a humility that gracefully disguises her enormous potential.
“I’m really interested in neurology, and also am contemplating the idea of neurosurgery,” she says. Along with her cognitive sciences major, Muthukumar is taking the course requirements for pre-med, and plans to attend medical school after graduation.
In discussing her many accomplishments at such a young age, Muthukumar flips the narrative from what she does know, to what she has yet to learn.
“I’m interested in how much we don’t know about the brain.”
You Can Help
How can you be a part of helping Muthukumar’s Big Idea become a reality? The NSF competition is currently in its public comment phase, and these comments are actually part of the rubric for choosing the finalists. You can view the video HERE, and submit comments at the bottom of the page. Deadline for comments is June 26.
-Kara Roberts for the UCI School of Social Sciences