When not using data to solve problems, computer scientist Jose Hurtado Jr. redirects his passions for uncovering and sharing information about Andean culture. Touting the rich heritage of the Peruvian mountains which is home to some of the oldest civilizations in the Americas, “the knowledge the ancient Peruvians had, is still with us and there’s value in it,” he says.
Hurtado, a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, recently began a year-long position at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Alexandria, Virginia, joining the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). He aspires to promote the long-term impacts of the GRFP on individual students, their professional and educational careers, as well as the nation's scientific workforce-productivity. Through the analysis of application-related and annual report data, he hopes to reveal latent insights to help the NSF's mission of broadening STEM participation, thus using his text mining skills to improve the federal policymaking process.
It is a dream role, says Hurtado, who completed his Ph.D. in 2016. “I am very blessed to have made it this far,” he adds, recounting his life’s journey – both metaphorically and geographically.
Escaping political persecution, Hurtado left Peru for the United States in 1993 with his parents and four sisters. After settling in Miami, 16-year-old Hurtado remembers cleaning bathrooms alongside his parents to help the family make ends meet. He recalls fond times in their new home where the family would gather to play traditional Andean folk music, which inspired Hurtado to perfect his skills on several instruments including the mandolin, violin and guitar.
Prior to fleeing Peru, his parents would advocate for community art, forming choirs and music groups throughout the country. They called their family group “Kuyayky,” which means “to love” in Quechua, the traditional language of the Peruvian Andes.
Meanwhile, with a remedial knowledge of English, Hurtado began high school in the U.S. where he found liberation to pursue his own interests.
“It was freeing to be part of that system,” he reveals. “In Peru, the schools have everyone doing the same classes. Here, you have the chance to choose your classes. If you do well, you move up. You get so many chances to succeed.”
After high school, Hurtado pursued his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Florida International University while working a fulltime job in customer service to support himself. “I thought computer science would give me the best chance of getting a job,” he says. But he also landed in that field because he believes knowledge is power. “The more data you have, the better decisions you can make,” he adds.
Eventually, Hurtado spent seven years working with real estate technology as a database administrator implementing Internet Data Exchange (IDX) software nationally.
Eager to continue his technical knowledge, Hurtado pursued a Ph.D. at Florida Atlantic University. As part of his studies, he worked on a system to utilize automated analysis of hospital discharge notes from doctors to determine a patient’s risk of readmission. He helped reduce sample imbalance and ensure that machine learning models included an equal number of observations from all possible outcomes to avoid biased results. He proposed a localized sampling approach with fewer features using topic modeling to solve this.
After graduating in 2002, Hurtado helped establish Kuyayky, a nonprofit dedicated to elevating Andean artists and traditions. He has also used his software development skills to create Imanchay, a free phone application that teaches the Quechua language through games, storing vocabulary words and corresponding pictures.
“Lately, the number of Quechua programs in the U.S. has exploded,” he says. “I don’t think it's a coincidence. People understand there’s value in it.”
Led by his own experiences, Hurtado's work centers on underrepresented communities including Latin American, U.S. Latinx and Indigenous people. It is a passion he is excited to bring to his fellowship, where he is embedded in the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Graduate Education.
The division supports U.S. STEM education for the purpose of developing a diverse and well-prepared workforce in related careers.
While he has only spent a week on the job, Hurtado is most excited about making a difference in society, hoping his analyses might promote a more inclusive process for awarding funding. In the meantime, he also hopes to inspire other minority students to pursue their dreams while honoring their heritage.
“It’s our duty to continue to tell everyone who we are as a people,” says Hurtado. “If they understand their identity – who they are – then it’s going to be easier for them to know where they are going.”