Abni Suri, self–taught coder extraordinaire, made some time between moderating Philo discussions and teaching CIS 197 to discuss his love for Hershel’s East Side Deli and how he plans to blend his love for technology and medicine.

Name: Abhinav Suri

Hometown: San Antonio, TX (but has also lived in India, Boston, New Haven, and Los Angeles)

Major/School: Biology and Computer Science, minoring in Classics and Chemistry

Activities: Co–Director of Hack4Impact, President and Moderator of Philo, CIS 197 Instructor, Chemistry 251 TA

34th Street Magazine: What are some of the coolest projects and experiences you’ve had working with Hack4Impact?

Abni Suri: What I think really speaks to Hack4Impact’s true value outside of the technical prowess of our developers, was the project I worked on my first semester with Hack4Impact for Reading Terminal Market. They’re the third–most popular tourist destination in Philadelphia. In the market, you have the vendors that sell food, which is what customers regularly see. They also have these vendors that sell food to them. However, the issue is that if you are a new merchant in Reading Terminal Market, it’s very difficult to build up relationships with these new vendors. Furthermore, you don’t know if you’re getting price gouged or not. What we did was create this online marketplace—you can kind of think of it as this mini–Amazon for Reading Terminal Market. All the vendors would put up all their raw good and prices and the merchants could select and filter by price and reputation of the vendors. Throughout that time I was interacting with Steven, the owner of Hershel’s East Side Deli. Not sure if you’ve been there, but there’s really good pastrami, and whenever we went there we would get free pastrami. Working with him was also a nice way for me to develop my communication skills. I’m a computer scientist, but I’m trying to talk to this person who has no experience whatsoever with regards to application programming, so I gained that sense about teaching through that process. More importantly, seeing the impact it had on Steven was really rewarding.

Street: What are some of the surprising things you’ve learned as an instructor?

AS: Whenever we come to Penn, we’re always very high–minded and we think we don’t need any help. It’s very difficult for us to ask for help, and I know this is very prevalent within the CIS department since some of my students and TAs have expressed this to me. There’s this general perception as a student that if you go and ask for help, you’re considered dumber in the eyes of the TA. In reality, that is not the case whatsoever. As a TA myself, I really legitimately enjoyed helping people through the process of learning the material. More personally, there’s a skill of being able to communicate things to students that is very hard to hone. It’s always a process of experimentation.

Street: As someone who now teaches a course on JavaScript and leads one of the biggest coding clubs at Penn, when did you first start becoming interested in technology?

AS: It’s not what you would see with a lot of West Coast kids, where they’ve been coding since elementary school. For me, coding was something that I very much stumbled into. In 9th grade, I did robotics; however, I did not know how to code, so I definitely wasn’t on the programming team. There was someone who was superior to me officially in charge of making the website for our robotics team, but they dropped out last minute, so I had to pull together a website in the course of 48 hours. I was just, like, completely dumbfounded. My first encounter with programming was drag and drop with iWeb. The following year, I was officially put as the head of the website, and I wanted to do it legitimately this time, not just drag and drop. Over the course of five or six months, I was essentially looking at programming tutorials on YouTube and figuring out how to learn to use HTML and CSS. That was essentially my first introduction to JavaScript as well. That’s how I really fell in love with what could be loosely called computer programming. 

Street: What are the things you love about Philo?

AS: There are a lot of great people at Penn–however, it’s very difficult to break through people and get beyond superficial conversations. You have to spend a lot of time with them to get to the point where you can start talking about this topic that isn’t related to homework or recruiting. I found that this was basically a space where you don’t have to spend months and months with people to reach the point where you can have super deep conversations with them. People are in this space right now because they want to have those discussions. Like I can have discussions regarding what artificial intelligence is going to be like in the future–is it gonna take over our lives? How should we better structure organ donor transplants? These things have absolutely no consequence to our lives whatsoever, but it’s just interesting to talk about. It’s interesting to see how people think.

Street: I would imagine a lot of doors are open for someone with your skill set. What would you be interested in pursuing post graduation? 

AS: Seeing the direct impact of how meaningful Hack4Impact was to vendors like Steven throughout the entire process was so rewarding. Ultimately, I think that’s what leads me to choose a career in medicine. I think a lot of people tell me I should be in computer science or software engineering or something like that, but I find that even though I love programming, it ultimately is benefitting a ton of people but indirectly through a screen. For me, that just isn’t as personally satisfying as interacting directly with a patient. Even though I know that I’ll never be able to nearly impact as many patients as I would as a software engineer, having that direct impact is really valuable to me.

Street: Where do you think you can make the most impact?

AS: What my mindset has been towards education in general, and why I chose these disparate fields of computer science and biology, is primarily for this reason. Right now, in the medical field, there is minimal to no overlap between these two fields. For example, if I were to walk into HUP and I have an amazing application that would benefit all these patients—doctors don’t really know that language, they don’t know what’s possible and what’s not possible with technology in medicine. I want to be a doctor not only for patient interaction, but also to bridge this gap between these vastly different fields.

Lightning round

Street: Spot you are going to miss most on campus? 

AS: Philomathean Halls

Street: Favorite book? 

AS: Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom

Street: Best on–campus food truck? 

AS: Cucina Zapata (Mexican–Thai fusion food)

Street: Favorite TV show?

AS: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Street: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be? 

AS: Nick Bostrom, Gary Bernhardt, or Dan Abramov


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