By Hannah Lee | Photo by John Michael Simpson
Chatham School of Science & Engineering senior Jayden Sansom, who was born in Great Falls, Montana, and moved to Chatham in 2012 from Bristol, Virginia, lives with her parents, Brian Sansom and Jaime Sansom, in Pittsboro near Chapel Ridge. Her sister, Jaycee Sansom, studies computer science at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Jayden will also study computer science at N.C. State beginning this fall.
Jayden rushes to the library between classes at Central Carolina Community College, where she’s dual-enrolled, just to feel the keyboard at her fingertips. The young coder clicks and clacks as numbers and letters form scripts, sets and sometimes even a program – though it may take days of work. Or months.
Jayden loves getting lost in the “puzzle” of the virtual world. She didn’t start coding until her freshman year of high school, yet Jayden has already won more than 15 awards and honors in the discipline. That includes her latest (and most prestigious) honor: the 2021 award for Aspirations in Computing, which she won from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) – selected from a field of nearly 4,300 candidates – in January.
“To [be] chosen as one of the top 40 women was utter and complete joy and disbelief,” Jayden says. “I worked very hard to get to that moment.”
Jayden was also previously recognized by the NCWIT as a 2019 Rising Star. In the time between those two honors, she developed an award-winning app, Starga, which tracks constellations, and created a rock-paper-scissors game against a quantum computer during the MIT Artificial Intelligence Hackathon.
It’s all part of a meteoric rise for the artist-turned-artificial-intelligence enthusiast. Jayden credits her success in part to her first computer science teacher, Charlotte Dungan, the artificial intelligence program architect at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM). Jayden was part of the first cohort of students to complete the two-year STEM Scholars Program, a partnership created among state public schools and NCSSM.
“I present the same opportunities to many of my students,” Charlotte says. “Jayden was just the only one who said yes to all of them.”
Charlotte first encouraged Jayden to take NCSSM’s AI research projects course three years ago, then urged Jayden to submit projects for award considerations when she showed a natural aptitude. The honors keep coming.
The title of her most recent project is formidable: “Artificial intelligence as the artist using adversarial networks to generate art indistinguishable from a human’s work.” The three-month long endeavor culminated in something that not only stood out scientifically, but also highlighted Jayden’s personal love for art and the humanity it reveals. The program she built filters and adjusts any work of uploaded art until the piece resembles a new work. She tested its effectiveness by showing six of her program-adjusted pieces to art students at CCCC, asking them if they considered the works “art” and what emotions they elicited.
When 90% of the students agreed her filtered works were “art,” Jayden considered the test a success, both for the program she’d built and for the potential of AI to contribute to the humanities moving forward.
“I thought it would be really cool to do art and computer science together,” Jayden says. “And it turns out, a lot of research is currently being done on whether or not computers can actually be creative, and if people can get the same feelings and sense that they would if they were viewing a human’s piece of art.”
Jayden’s success in that initial test prompted her to push the program through to the Chatham County Schools Science Fair, which she won, and then later to the Region 5 North Central Regional Science & Engineering Fair in late February. The recognition for her digital program represented a perfect melding of two passions for the budding young artist, who had already placed first in the state’s National Beta Club convention’s digital art division and eighth in the country’s National Beta Club convention.
“One thing that makes Jayden stand out is she took the opportunity to take a research class,” Charlotte says, “and she developed an artificial intelligence research project and implemented that project in community college as a 16-year-old. She certainly is specialin that way – to take that initiativeand then to be so persistent at doing something that most people would never even start.”
Jayden’s next step is to combine her fondness for computer science and art into a profession. She plans to attend N.C. State University, one of the few universities that has a minor specifically for video game design. She’ll tap into her creativity to dream up games … and then use her coding skills to create them.