Shree Bose is on the home stretch of becoming a medical scientist with a PhD and a MD from Duke University, aiming for a career as a practicing oncologist. This will be the fulfilment of a career goal indicated to former president of the United States Barack Obama after winning the Google Global Science fair back in 2011. Shree is also the co-founder of Piper, an amazing set of microprocessor kits and curricula to help learners explore computer hardware, circuits, and programming in a fun and engaging way.
As a developer advocate for ChromeOS, and a fellow woman in tech, it was inspiring to speak with Shree. Read on for more about her story, vision, and the success of Piper in bringing engaging learning experiences to students.
How did you get started in tech? What was the inspiration for Piper?
My grandfather passed away from liver cancer when I was fifteen. At that time I started googling everything I could find on cancer — and there is some very weird stuff about cancer on the internet — but I read all of it. I read about people’s experiences, I read journal articles even when I did not understand every other word, I just read everything. Eventually I realized some of the questions that I was starting to ask were questions that cancer research as a field did not have answers to yet. I said to myself, “I have now reached the bounds of human knowledge. I would like to contribute.”
So, as an ambitious fifteen-year-old who wanted to contribute to the bounds of human knowledge, I started reaching out to professors at local universities in my area. After hundreds of rejections, I eventually found a professor who appreciated my passion for cancer research and said that I could work in their lab. I went in for two summers and started learning lab research. I broke glassware, I messed up experiments, but I also learned a lot. At the end of these two summers, I had this incredible project on drug resistance in ovarian cancer: I had found this cool central metabolic protein, which basically tells the cells, “Yes, you have enough nutrients to grow” or “No, you do not”. This protein was something that you could target to help with drug resistance in ovarian cancer. I entered it in the first ever Google Global Science Fair in 2011 and won the grand prize!
After that, an incredible whirlwind of events followed. I travelled around the world, I talked to President Obama, and I also talked to kids all over the world. Something interesting started coming up in these conversations. I would be talking to kids in rural Texas and then I would go to South Korea and I would get the same questions. Kids would come up to me after our talk, and they would say:
“What you did with biology is really cool! I have a really cool idea for something that I want to create with technology but whenever I try to look online like you did, I get lost and feel bad about myself. I know that I have a really great idea, but how do I get started?”
I just kept hearing that, it was everywhere, and I did not have a good answer for them. So I co-founded Piper as my answer to that question. What is a way for kids to really start exploring technology that is not only powerful but lets you build something hands-on? To prototype and physically build cool new ideas? And that does it in a way where you feel smart and capable? What does that look like? Piper was really born out of that principle of creating experiences that make kids feel like they can fall in love with building technology.
Thinking about myself as a technologist, I would say my strength is as a team builder. I am not trained in computer science, I did molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and I’m an MD/PhD student now. My background in computation is only what I have taught myself. The most powerful thing I’ve been able to do at Piper is to bring together great developers and collaborators and harness the talent of these incredible people.
What is the Piper experience like for users? How does it tie in with Minecraft: Pi Edition and Minecraft: Education Edition? ChromeOS?
One thing we found out pretty early on was that we had to build on what kids know and love and feel good at. We had to meet them where they were and Minecraft was where they were in 2014, and continue to be in a really robust way. We use the Minecraft: Pi Edition edition as a platform to get kids engaged and so most of our hardware is based on Raspberry Pi.
Something I am really excited about is Piper Make, our ChromeOS partnership, which is a browser-based prototyping platform for the Raspberry Pi Pico microcomputer and not tied to Minecraft: Pi Edition.
With Piper Make, we still use a number of Minecraft-y elements because our storytelling is very tied to the Minecraft aesthetic. It’s an easy way to draw kids in and they already understand that world. It also fits with this “block-like” concept in our products; Piper Make coding itself is all based off of Blockly. The idea of having storytelling around the Minecraft elements is a really powerful part of what we do that resonates with kids.
One more cool Piper Make product is a game controller kit where you build your own game controller, code it, and then use it with a one year subscription to Minecraft: Education Edition. So we’re still plugging into the Minecraft ecosystem with Piper Make as well, just more with the Education Edition than the Pi edition. We built Piper Make to be Chromebook compatible and we have a number of lessons where you build your own games and then you can jump right into Minecraft: Education Edition on your Chromebook.
Chrome is incredibly important for us, especially with the launch of the Web Serial API, which is the only reason Piper Make exists in the form of does. This enabled us to be browser-based. One of the big things that really bothered me in the past is that I would get these microcontrollers and then I would have to go download a special IDE and I wouldn’t know what I was doing most of the time. It was always really frustrating for me and I imagine it would also be frustrating for a student who did not already know that computing environment. Because Chrome had these capabilities that nothing else offered, we were able to create Piper Make as a browser-based thing. You plug it in, you go to a website, you start dragging code, and you see it light up in front of you! And you can do that in a minute flat! That is something I’ve never seen before, and kids love it.
What is next for Piper?
We’re currently focused on building out our Piper Make product line, introducing more and more modular, plug-and-play widgets for kids to play with and learn about tech related to specific careers. One that I’m super excited about is our biomedical expedition kit – we have an actual pulse oximeter that you build with wood and a sensor and wire up to see your own heart rate. As a future doctor, I just love the idea of a kid being able to explore the medical technology that you see in doctor’s offices and realize “oh, I can build that!”
On a bigger picture note, we’re also expanding to India in the coming month, which is very exciting and very nerve-wracking. In the last year, we’ve evolved to be fully Made in the USA, and we’re hoping to start manufacturing for the Indian market in India. We think local manufacturing is going to be the model for how Piper products are created, and India is a really exciting place to try that out. On a personal note, my family is from India and I have always wanted to do something in India: I created this awesome tool, I want it to be accessible to the next generation of Indian inventors.
What advice would you give to other women who want to succeed in tech/as developers?
Here’s something that I learned very early on in the course of Piper. When we first started, we had this computer kit and there was no storytelling around it. You would just basically build your computer and then go into Minecraft: Pi Edition. And then you would build random pieces of hardware and see how they worked. We took it into classrooms and at first it was amazing: for the first ten minutes, all of these kids got super into it! Then we noticed something that was happening consistently in all of the classrooms we went into: after 15 minutes the guys continued to play and explore but, as though there was a 15-minute timer set, suddenly all the girls were like, “Yup, ok, we’re done” and would stop playing.
As a woman in science, this was not going to work for me. There was a problem. I then sat down to try the kit out myself. It was fascinating! I had been creating this thing for such a long time so thought I knew what the experience was. However, when I actually sat down and built it from scratch myself, within 15 minutes, I too felt like “All right, I built the thing, I did the thing, I’m done.” There was a moment when everything clicked in my mind and I realised: “Well, of course I don’t want to build anymore. Why would I? There’s no reason for me to build more. What is my motivation?”
This is why the storyline in Piper exists. At that moment, sitting in front of my own computer I had just assembled, I felt like I had no reason to continue building. So we thought about ways to change this experience and created that “reason” by adding in storylines. We took this new version into classrooms and, suddenly, an equal proportion of girls and boys we engaged. We did studies where, with this version, girls’ confidence playing with Piper goes up significantly more than for guys. Storytelling is a huge part of what makes Piper what it is today.
The reason I bring it up is that when I think about what I would tell a brilliant young woman who might be reading this, it would be: sometimes you might feel yourself really, really struggling with something. You might have failed a physics test, you might have failed a chemistry test, you might feel like you are really, really bad at something. It’s important to realize that sometimes the reason you feel like you suck at it is because it is not designed for you. It’s really not designed to fit the way you learn. And that does not mean that you suck at it, at all. In fact, it might mean that you are absolutely brilliant at it, but you are not being taught that concept or that thing in the way that you are most able to pick it up. Don’t give up on things too easily. We are still operating with educational models and paradigms that are not designed for women.
As you are in that moment, feeling that you are sucking at something, think about different ways to teach yourself the same thing because if you don’t give up, you might come up with something really, really amazing. And that’s the most powerful thing you can do.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with Shree and I cannot wait to try out some of the upcoming kits myself. Check out Piper and Piper Make today with your Chromebook!