When USC Viterbi alumnus Lucas Hu, B.S. CSCI ‘20, M.S EE ’20, spots an opportunity to make a real impact, he pounces.
As a freshman, Hu helped found CAIS++, the first student branch of the USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society (CAIS) with a mission to promote the development of AI applications for social good.
In his junior year, Hu enrolled in CE 486, a year-long course at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering that challenges students to devise real-world engineering solutions to global challenges. While Hu’s expectation was to use his budding engineering skills to help others, what he did not know is that his team and project, Duet, would become a global nonprofit organization that sought to leverage the solutions of brilliant minds and the compassion of volunteers to rewrite the narrative about humanitarian aid.
After graduating from USC during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hu joined Palo Alto Networks as a data scientist, where he works to protect vulnerable internet users from phishing attacks. Even outside of school, Hu recognized the value of collaboration and diligence in solving some of the world’s biggest problems using AI.
Writer Cheyenne Gaima recently caught up with Hu about how his mantra, “leave the world a little better than you found it,” shows up in his work.
What is Duet? Please give me a little background on its founding and purpose.
Duet is a nonprofit organization that uses the power of technology to reimagine humanitarian aid distribution by creating a scalable, three-sided marketplace. Currently, our operations are focused in Lesvos and Athens, Greece, where we have partnered with an arm of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help support resettled refugee families arriving from all over the world. The Duet founding team members met in a CE 486: Innovation in Engineering Design for Global Challenges, a year-long USC Viterbi civil engineering course that tasked us to find immediate engineering solutions to the global refugee crisis. For the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also ran a DuetLA pilot program to support vulnerable Angelenos who had recently moved out of foster care. Though we’ve suspended DuetLA operations, we’re extremely proud of the impact that we were able to have during our pilot, especially during the crazy first several months of the pandemic.
Duet is unique in that our community expands to so many different populations across different regions. For example, we have team members here in Los Angeles working with store owners in Athens and Lesvos and people across the world donating to the families that we support there as well. There are so many different parts of the platform which makes the world feel small, and that’s kind of the goal.
How does it work?
A refugee walks into one of our partner stores in Greece and takes a picture of an item that they need. They upload the photo through the Duet app, and the item is then added to our website.
Everyday people like you and me make charitable monetary donations to a refugee family in need. Before making their contribution, donors can see the details of the family they’re donating to and the exact high-priority items requested by that family.
Donated funds become revenue through the Duet store portal and are used to purchase necessary items requested by families with the help of volunteer community organizers. Local Greek store owners source the requested goods and also act as pickup destinations for families to receive their hyper-personalized and dignified aid. Donors can leverage our specialized donor tracking system and transparent process to see the impact of their donation.
How do you juggle full-time industry work with your philanthropic efforts at Duet?
Everybody on the Duet team is a volunteer giving up their free time to invest in something that matters. It’s extremely motivating to be surrounded by people who are driven by the same things you’re passionate about. The drive that we all have to truly make an impact in the lives of other people is what gets us up every day and sparks our continued efforts.
Our team is pretty mixed, with some of us working full-time and others still continuing their degree. However, our desire to keep working on this hasn’t really changed and, if anything, we’re still putting in a similar workload. Ultimately, it’s something that I want to do and a natural extension of my passions. So, it’s rewarding to give my efforts to Duet.
What is your favorite thing about post-grad life? How did your education at USC Viterbi prepare you for professional success?
I have an amazing group of friends at USC that I miss dearly. We’re still close and we’re hoping to plan some more vacations for when it’s safe to travel during the pandemic.
Being a leader in an organization like CAIS++ and mentoring younger students was an incredible privilege for me. Now, I’m back at step one of the ladder looking all the way up at people who have been at Palo Alto Networks for 10 plus years thinking, “Please, teach me!” I have so much to learn and so much more that I want to do, and I think new opportunities are really exciting.
I think my computer science program at USC Viterbi did a pretty good job of laying down the fundamentals for me. But once I started my job, I realized that there’s so much nuance to your work that you never would have been able to pick up in school. I’m at that stage now where I’m just kind of being a sponge trying to soak up as much as possible.
What kinds of projects do you work on at Palo Alto Networks?
My current projects focus primarily on phishing detection. There are a lot of cyber criminals out there who try to obtain user login credentials for banks and such. My team is responsible for blocking those kinds of fraudulent emails and webpages created by criminals trying to steal others’ personal information.
What is the connecting thread between your undergraduate studies, Duet, CAIS ++ and your current job? Is it your belief in the power of AI?
In the back of my brain, I always think of how I can link my passions and involvements together in a meaningful way, and I think my work at USC, Duet, and Palo Alto Networks all amplify that common theme of using technology for social good. For example, when I think of my work at Palo Alto Networks, I think they’re super rewarding projects because for one, I can see the transformative power of AI working right in front of me.
Right now, a lot of AI and machine learning applications focus on things like showing the right ads to people or recommending which YouTube video to watch next. I suppose there’s some value to that, but I think that there are AI and ML applications that are more impactful. This goes back to the work I was doing at CAIS and the message I was trying to instill from the beginning: that there are super meaningful projects that you can work on as an engineer and I want to encourage people to find those directions and contribute to things that they are excited about.
What is your proudest accomplishment during your time at USC Viterbi?
If you told high school or even college freshman me about my current situation, I think I would be pretty thrilled! I strive to make a difference in all of the work that I do and I can proudly say that has been true so far.
If I had to pick one thing, it would have to be the community I helped build at CAIS++. Now, it’s run by a bunch of people who are smarter and more accomplished than me, and that I would hire in a heartbeat. They took CAIS++ to the next level and have still been very engaged with students, even remotely, and that makes me extremely proud. It’s definitely one of the most rewarding things I got out of my four years at USC.
Who is your biggest role model?
My parents and my brother are absolutely my biggest role models. My parents immigrated to the United States from China with little to their name, went to school, and worked their way up to provide a stable, loving household for their children. Because of them, I’ve seen a lot of stability in my life, having lived in the same home for 15 years and growing up with the same people, so I had a community around me at all times. My parents have always supported me in doing the things that I love, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
My younger brother, unfortunately, missed his in-person freshman year at the University of California Santa Cruz. His grit and determination to get through this academic year despite the challenges of virtual learning have been really inspiring. I’m super lucky to be stuck at home with people that I actually enjoy being with.
I also have to mention the importance of my teachers throughout my education, all the way back to middle and high school. I’ve always had the best teachers and though I didn’t think too much of it then, when I look back I realize I always had those kinds of teachers that were well respected and whose classes students wished they’d end up in. My love for school and learning can be credited to them, and I think teachers made a really big difference in my academic career very early on.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind? What would you want your tombstone to say?
Precisely, I want my legacy to be the impact I’ve made.
Note: if you are looking for an internship at a tech nonprofit, Duet is hiring! Reach out to Lucas at email@example.com or anyone on the team at firstname.lastname@example.org with your resume.