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Stellina Ao

Cal State LA graduate, Charmaine Chui
Graduating Cal State LA student seeks to improve lives of stroke survivors
Cerritos teen will begin a master’s degree program in bioengineering in the fall

College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology

College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology

Stellina Ao was rollerblading through her Cerritos neighborhood when she ran into a neighbor. Their conversation led to Ao explaining her research project at Cal State LA, and her neighbor immediately perked up about the possibilities of Ao’s work.

“At the end of it, she really surprised me,” Ao said. “She said that she was very excited and very hopeful that I could help her brother, who was a stroke survivor.”

Sixteen-year-old Ao is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, with double minors in biomedical engineering and mathematics, from Cal State LA’s College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology.

Her research—which lies at the intersection of sensorimotor neuroscience, machine learning, and biomedical engineering—could go a long way in improving the lives of stroke survivors, individuals with paraplegia or amputations, and others with motor impairments.

Ao’s research has been trying to improve a device called the brain-computer interface. The device monitors an individual’s neural activity and shares it with a machine-learning algorithm, which then sends an action command to a prosthetic limb.

“The device that we’re working on is basically trying to establish a synthetic connection between the brain and an actuator, like a prosthetic limb,” she explained.

Deborah Won, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said that Ao’s work leaves a legacy, enabling future students to carry on her research on the development of a noninvasive electroencephalography-based brain-computer interface.

“Her drive to set up and run the experiments was perhaps second only to her drive to develop new algorithms,” said Won, who is one of Ao’s faculty mentors. “Stellina leapt forward with implementing new algorithms from papers she had read. I know this ambitious, bold quality of hers will serve her well in becoming a researcher who solves the hardest challenges in the medical world!”

Ao graduated as a sixth grader from Fairmont Private School in Anaheim in 2020. That fall, Ao, who was 12 at the time, enrolled at Cal State LA through the Early Entrance Program. The program accepts gifted students between the ages of 11-15 as full-time students into the university’s Honors College.

Ao’s first love was math, and by fifth grade she was already taking precalculus courses at Fairmont. She developed her interest in computer science and artificial intelligence after taking online and in-person courses that were offered to youth in Southern California by Johns Hopkins University.

“I really like logic puzzles,” she said. “I enjoy the logic involved in the coding process, which was what drew me to computer science. At about 11 or 12, I became really interested in artificial intelligence, and I didn’t even know at the time that A.I. was such a big deal. I thought about how cool it would be to simulate intelligence and consciousness—these really abstract, broad frontiers of science.”

Ao also knew at an early age that she wanted to go into a field that would benefit others. “I wanted to do something that would impact people, and ideally it would be in a medical situation or a clinical environment.”

Soon after she enrolled at Cal State LA, she was able to put all her interests together.

“It’s been really nice to have been exposed to a lot of interdisciplinary content,” she said. “I have a diverse background in computer science, math, biomedical engineering, and neuroscience. I was able to integrate all these different aspects and cross-pollinate across fields as well. At Cal State LA, you get a lot of independence and license with your projects. …That’s an experience that’s hard to come by as an undergraduate, and it’s something that I value a lot.”

Ao will begin work on her Master of Science in Bioengineering at UCLA in the fall. Her ultimate goal is to conduct research in academia with a focus on computational neuroscience.

Ao lives in Cerritos with her parents, Mary Sun and Benjamin Ao, and their nine-year-old German Shepherd, Flora.

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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.

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