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Avi Gupta

Class of 2023

Among the 327 talented first-year students in Columbia Engineering's Class of 2023 are many scientists, social entrepreneurs, and student leaders. But only one is also both a Jeopardy! champion and budding philanthropist.

Portland, Oregon’s Avi Gupta ’23 became familiar to millions this past summer when he beat out 14 of America’s brightest high schoolers to win the $100,000 Jeopardy! Teen Tournament. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream dating back to evenings spent watching the venerable game show with his grandmother, but the celebration was soon cut short: not long after the tournament’s taping, beloved host Alex Trebek announced that he’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a daunting prognosis with a five-year survival rate of just three percent.

“I was devastated,” Gupta said. “Alex Trebek is someone who has always stood for the importance of knowledge and facts, and played a big role in my life and the lives of millions of viewers.”

Wondering how he might help Trebek and the 56,000 Americans diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, Gupta thought back to his time as a student researcher in two labs at Oregon Health and Sciences University, where he helped develop non-invasive diagnostic tools. He’d witnessed so much promising work from OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute that he decided to donate $10,314 of his Jeopardy! winnings to their research into novel treatments and early diagnosis for pancreatic cancer, which is currently often detected only after it has extensively metastasized.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position to contribute,” said Gupta, who chose the amount in homage to his favorite number, π. “Scientists and engineers are starting to win this battle against cancer, and we need to help them do more.”

It was just the latest example of Gupta’s passion for giving back. In his sophomore year of high school, he founded Project32, a student-run social startup providing dental hygiene education and supplies to low-resource communities across the developing world. The group now comprises several chapters nationwide. After starting his school’s championship-winning chess club, Gupta happened to befriend a fellow chess enthusiast from Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country, during a project for advanced Spanish class. Together they began formulating lesson plans, fundraising for chess sets, and organizing scholastic chess festivals in the central African nation. The partnership ultimately led to the foundation of the Equatoguinean National Chess Association (ANAGE).

“One thing I love about chess is how it promotes personal and social development,” said Gupta, who was among a delegation that traveled to the Equatorial Guinea last fall for ANAGE’s official chartering. “It’s a great outlet for intellectual curiosity.”

Drawn to Columbia by the culture of rigorous intellectual exchange, Gupta earned a spot among the Egleston Scholars, the engineering school’s top honorific for undergraduates, and was soon elected inaugural president of the Class of 2023. So far, his priorities have included connecting with the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association and the Columbia Center for Career Education to link first-years with mentors in the profession. Gupta has also gotten involved with the Columbia Social Entrepreneurship Group, where he’s involved with a nonprofit called HeatSeek ensuring that low-income New Yorkers have access to heating. Additionally, he is a consultant with Columbia’s 180 Degree Consulting group, which partners with nonprofit organizations to improve and expand services for low-income constituencies.

In his studies, Gupta is currently focusing on computer science and information systems and exploring the potentially endless applications for deep learning. IBM’s Watson supercomputer was initially developed for mastering Jeopardy!, he notes, which required understanding the game’s tricky colloquial clues as much as drawing upon huge stockpiles of information. Thanks to its ever-improving capacity to navigate messy datasets, Watson is now able to help doctors determine optimal treatments for cancer patients. Similarly, he suggests, the intensely interdisciplinary atmosphere at Columbia is equipping students to take on complicated challenges.

“Columbia seems to me a microcosm of the world,” he said. “Instead of retreating into their viewpoints, students here express, share, and debate their views, contributing to a vibrant and stimulating environment. We engineers are forced to consider societal implications, which ultimately leads to more practical and applicable solutions.”

Student Spotlight

Instead of retreating into their viewpoints, students here express, share, and debate their views, contributing to a vibrant and stimulating environment. We engineers are forced to consider societal implications, which ultimately leads to more practical and applicable solutions.

Avi Gupta
Class of 2023