By Tiffani Szeto ’21, Biological Neuroscience

Unprecedented seems to be the word of the week. Word of the month. Word of the year.

At the beginning of last year, I was working as a residential assistant (RA) in a dorm full of first-year students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Full of enthusiasm, I baked brownies and cookies to share with my residents during our first floor meeting. I made lots of new friends, bonded with my staff, and even formed a research group with two of my peers, Yue Chen and Chuizheng Kong, who shared my passion for neuroscience. Life was good! Flash forward to August 2020 — I was an RA for a second semester, but life looked quite different.

Masks, sanitation, isolation — it was a mantra I repeated over and over in my head. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way; people all around the world were experiencing similar feelings. However, I realized I had to step away from this environment — I couldn’t help my first-year residents if I couldn’t take care of myself.

When I moved back home, I continued to participate in clubs that were active virtually, in addition to continuing my research with Yue and Kong. As I was talking to them about my short but eye-opening experience as an RA, Yue mentioned the Burt Swersey Inventor’s Studio Challenge. This competition encourages students to submit a proposal for “an idea that will impact society and the globe in positive ways.” Given my experience, the three of us saw this as an opportunity to positively impact not only the RPI community, but the broader world.

Feelings of anxiety, fear, and isolation were hardly unique in 2020, but these unprecedented challenges required an unprecedented solution. Our team came up with the idea for Soc!al, a game-like system that integrates new members into a community by helping them create and foster lasting bonds. We know that people are always going to want to meet up and hang out in person, so a unique part of our game is that it will actually begin to incorporate challenges that require students to do things in person together, once it’s safe to do so. Students will take a 10-question matching survey that will help our AI-matching algorithm place them into teams of four. Each team will then complete various games designed to encourage user interaction, which we hope will ultimately lead to friendship. These different challenges will occur over the course of a few days, and teams will have various chances to win different prizes throughout their time on Soc!al.

Since then, our team has been working with various departments at Rensselaer to bring an idea from the theoretical world into reality. As we build more and more momentum, I look back and realize that every experience is a valuable one, especially those that seem tough in the moment. Adversity is crucial for innovation — without a problem, there’s no solution.

Image Above: From left to right, Chuizheng Kong, Tiffani Szeto, Yue Chen.