Humans of SymSys: Maika Isogawa


Maika Isogawa is a sophomore interested in AI. She was a Symbolic Systems Program Summer Research Intern in 2018.

Where are you from? 

I was born in Tokyo, Japan! I lived there until I was about 5, then my family moved to Minnesota. I spent the next few years traveling back and forth between the two.

You took a break from Stanford for a bit. What were you up to? 

I was a professional circus performer. I worked for a show called "Absinthe" by Spiegelworld, and "TOTEM" by Cirque Du Soleil. Both shows were touring, so I lived and worked in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia, and Brussels. 

What drew you to SymSys? Why did you pick your current concentration?

When I was younger, I wanted to be an Astrophysicist. Then I came to Stanford thinking I would be a Physics Engineering major. After taking a leave of absence, I came back with a whole new set of interests and goals. Symsys offered the most breadth across all of the domains that I wanted to learn more about. My concentration is Artificial Intelligence. Not only is it a field that is rapidly expanding and innovative, but it also parallels the question of figuring out what we are as human beings, too. 

What’s your favorite SymSys-related class that you’ve taken?

LINGUIST130A - Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics with Chris Potts. I think a professor can really be the difference between a student loving a class vs. hating it - Chris was incredible. Very personable, he kept the class really organized and all of the expectations were set up-front (a simple thing that we don't appreciate until we don't have it). The material was interesting too; it revealed a lot about natural language that we take for granted. NLP is a big question in AI right now too, so I felt like I was learning something that I would actually use in the future.

What's one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

Be honest with yourself about what you're interested in. It's easy to pursue a major/field for ulterior reasons - maybe its for the promise of financial stability after graduation, maybe it's familial pressure... all valid reasons to pick one path over another. But your time in college will be so much more enjoyable if you're choosing the classes and the path that you actually want to do. 

What's something cool you've worked on? 

Over the summer,  I interned with the HCI department here at Stanford under Mark Whiting and Michael Bernstein. We were researching how teams fractured, using an online environment. In a group of 5 undergraduates, we really got to take initiative with the project: building the entire front-end/back-end of the platform, integrating it with various APIs, gathering data, and submitting a paper to a conference. The work was cool and interesting, but what stood out to me was the people I got to work with every day. Everyone was driven, smart, and so incredibly kind. It was a wonderful environment, and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in this project.

What (loosely) SymSys-related topic are you excited about right now?

Bio-inspired AI. There's actually a ton of new approaches and theories floating around the AI-world at the moment. Implementation is the toughest part, but I'm really excited to see what comes from new research.

What other groups or activities are you involved with at Stanford?

ULTIMATE FRISBEE. LETS. GO. I play for Superfly, Stanford Women's Ultimate team. I tried out thinking that it would be a nice form of exercise, but instead it became some of my most cherished memories and closest friends at Stanford. Not only do I get to workout with incredibly talented, badass women, but ultimate has a huge community all over the Bay Area, and even around the world. Check us out at