It was a Friday in February. Katie opened her backpack, extracted her pink MacBook and tilted back in her chair while the teacher inspected her code. Her model’s accuracy was at 97.3 percent.
The project — a program that recognizes handwritten digits — was meant to be an introduction to neural networks, the cornerstone of modern artificial intelligence. Katie has worked with neural networks since before she had her driver’s license, and she’d long since finished the project. But she couldn’t pass up the bonuses because, she says, she does not believe in “good enough.”
“Oh, I see what I did!” she said. The chair legs thumped. “To calculate this derivative I have to pass in this output node.”
Her teacher nodded, praising Katie’s clean programming. “Nicely done.”
As she entered spring of her senior year at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, an elite Massachusetts private school, Katie showed no signs of slowing down. Obsessed with machines and their inner workings since kindergarten — her hands are streaked with scratches from reaching into the bowels of a robot — Katie believed she was on a fast track to joining the ranks of tech company founders who increasingly shape modern life.
Katie spent her high school years going to hackathons and tech conferences, and organizing events and tutoring for kids interested in STEM fields. Her résumé is four pages, single-spaced.
Post-graduation, Katie saw herself attending one of the two premier universities in her backyard, Harvard or MIT, and then walking in the footsteps of her tech heroes, Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs. Although she favors Silicon Valley-sounding mantras — “make the world a better place” and “solve unsolvable problems” — Katie speaks with an innocence long lost on Big Tech amid the rush of privacy scandals, disinformation epidemics and partisan clashes.
“I hope down the line whatever company I make or product I create will bring a lot of joy to people in their lives and help them,” Katie said. “Even in ways they didn’t think they could be helped.”
Beyond the loftiness, Katie was still just 18, a young woman in a field where relatively few are still represented. Katie believed she could surmount any challenge she faced even as she remained highly dependent on her family — “Team Katie Stevo,” they call themselves — to advance.
At that moment, Katie’s most immediate concerns were leading the RoboKnights, her robotics team, to glory and figuring out where she was going to college. The uncertainty riled her. She had no idea that, in a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic would bulldoze her senior year. She had no idea how little her life would resemble the plans she was laying out so meticulously.
On this day, Katie was not letting up. She asked her teacher, Bo Bleckel, to recommend a website where she could find data to train her algorithms for the bonus problems.
“I’ll tell you where to find it, but I’m just worried you’re overstretching yourself,” Bleckel said, raising his eyebrows. “Especially with a robotics competition this weekend.”
“I’ll just take it and do it later,” Katie said, planning to finish the problems that night.
Katie didn’t get to the bonus problems. She stayed at school until 9 that night (typical), doing practice runs with the robot in the dark while the cleaning crew mopped the floor around her. Her mom, Sandra Choo-Stevo, brought takeout from a Mediterranean restaurant, which they ate together at a table in Katie’s AP physics classroom.
School is where Katie feels most productive, so school has always been where Katie wants to be. Katie’s parents joked with the head of BB&N about setting up a cot for her, but the administrator said the school preferred students go home occasionally.
Time falls away for Katie on nights like this, when she’s buried in work, what she calls “lost in the vortex.”
“People say, ‘Katie, you’re crazy! You never sleep!’ But how can I sleep when I love what I’m doing so much?”
Many girls don’t feel so at home in tech. An October study from Gallup and Google found that, while girls and boys between seventh and 12th grade were equally likely to have learned computer science at school this year, just 12 percent of girls aspired to careers in computer science, compared with 33 percent of boys. Only 37 percent said they’d been encouraged by an adult to pursue a career in computer science, compared with 52 percent of boys.
Researchers say this reflects differing perceptions about who belongs in STEM fields, ultimately fueling the enduring gender gap in computer science, where women hold about a quarter of positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One 2019 study by researchers at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence projected that, if current trends persist, the field won’t reach gender parity in the 21st century.
But Katie has mostly attended private schools with advanced STEM curriculum. She built her first robots and learned the building blocks of coding in kindergarten. In fifth grade, she took soldering lessons during recess, then pressed her parents for her own soldering iron. For fun in middle school, she tried to replicate the gadgets she loved in “Spy Kids” and “Back to the Future.” By high school, she’d been to enough coding camps to become proficient in HTML, CSS and Python.
At 16, Katie was invited to speak at the Atlantic’s Humanity + Tech conference. She got an honorable mention for “Aspirations in Computing” this year from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. She had internships lined up with MIT and Raytheon, the defense contractor. In the future, she hopes to work on “mitigating bias in AI” (Katie’s sister Olivia says that this is Katie’s favorite phrase). She dreams of making Forbes’s 30 Under 30.
“She’s obviously had a privileged existence, but she has taken advantage of that in a good way, not a bad way,” said her father, Christopher Stevo, head of investor relations at Alexion Pharmaceuticals.
Katie applied to 13 colleges, many Ivy League. When her school sent home a note warning her parents that she hadn’t applied to enough safety schools, she shrugged it off: “Why would I have my parents pay for somewhere I don’t really want to go?"
The concept of leaving her family was foreign to Katie. The most time they’d spent apart was during an 11-day camping retreat near Chesham, N.H., before her freshman year of high school. The trip is a rite of passage for BB&N students: They chop wood, build their own A-frames and cook over the fire. The trip’s two unofficial tests of toughness are swimming in an icy lake and completing a one-night solo camping expedition.
Katie hadn’t wanted to go. She had never hiked or camped because her allergies make her miserable outdoors. While she was building her A-frame, she hammered her finger. She wasn’t prepared for the cold, so her parents had to ship her some sweatpants.
She still camped out alone and braved the lake every morning.
The morning of the VEX robotics competition, Katie sagged in the passenger seat while her mom piloted the minivan toward the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. It was just past 5:45. She’d stayed up past 3, preparing.
“I just could not get myself up,” Katie mumbled, shutting her eyes. They had 80 miles to go. Her Dunkin’ iced coffee with cream, sugar and caramel swirl hadn’t kicked in.
Before Katie became the first female RoboKnight, the team competed in one tournament a year, where they usually placed just shy of last. After Katie became co-captain, she lobbied the school for a bigger budget, ran daily practices and made the boys stop naming variables in their code “thingy.” She recruited other girls and found chaperones so they could enter tournaments throughout the Northeast.
Katie’s parents call her “the mayor.” She’s socially savvy, the product of years of extracurriculars and team sports. They say when Katie was little, she’d walk up to older kids on the playground and start telling them what to do, and they’d do it.
Kevin Bau, a computer science teacher at BB&N who serves as team adviser, likens Katie to a “field general” and said she transformed the RoboKnights. At times, he also wondered whether her toughness would spark a “mini-rebellion.”
“She’s so determined sometimes that she’s not always thinking about the big picture,” Bau said. “She’ll think about the big picture in terms of how to get to her goal at the end, but she’s not always empathetic to the people around her.”
Kingston was one of the RoboKnights’ last chances to qualify for the regional tournament, and the embodiment of all Katie’s hard work her senior year — and from the very beginning, it was a fiasco. The robot, 1717B, had to be filed down after it failed inspection for being too big. During the qualifying matches against other schools, 1717B kept getting slammed and breaking down.
The RoboKnights lost to teams Katie thought they should have beaten, but Katie was undeterred: She asked her mom for $12 to buy some backup axles for 1717B off her allies, the Pathfinders. She sent her younger sister Olivia to scout other matches so she could track the teams. Her mom force-fed her bites of ham sandwich while she worked through lunch.
Yet the RoboKnights slipped further down the scoreboard. As the qualifying matches wound down, Katie calculated that they needed the high score in skills — where the robots stack blocks and place them in towers without the help of human drivers — to have any chance of qualifying for regionals. Many teams don’t bother with skills because it is considered more difficult.
Each team could take three attempts at skills, but they all had to be completed before the next stage of the competition — the elimination matches — began. Once the RoboKnights finished setting up their first run, only three minutes remained.
Katie’s team circled around the field, their parents recording on iPhones and flashing thumbs up.
On the first run, 1717B seized and spun and put the blocks in the wrong spot. Katie groaned. The RoboKnights scrambled to reset the field.
The clock showed 40 seconds when the RoboKnights got ready to start the second run. 1717B put the stack in the right place, but it leaned, then toppled. Time was up. The team stood in stunned silence. It felt like they were doomed.
Katie wasn’t ready to accept defeat. The tournament had been running behind all day, and she only needed another 30 seconds. So she and her teammates hatched a plan: They appealed to the judge for one more chance. While he ran their request up the flagpole, Katie found a way to stall.
“I’m getting Pathfinders to come up with some BS call to argue with to buy us more time,” Katie said gleefully to her mother.
Sandra laughed as Katie disappeared into the crowd. “Win or lose, she always has to try her best,” she said.
Soon after she reappeared, a Pathfinders boy in an aviation jacket and steampunk goggles at the neighboring field started making a fuss about the battery in his robot. While he slow-walked down the hall to get a new one, delaying the start of the last qualifying match, the judge overseeing skills told the RoboKnights they could take one last shot.
The corners of Katie’s mouth twitched upward. She turned her attention to the final run.
“This has to work perfectly,” Katie said.
“Let us pray,” someone said, half-serious.
Katie held her breath. 1717B put up a tower worth 21 points, snagging the day’s second-best score.
The robot had finally obeyed, but everyone assumed second place wouldn’t be good enough to advance the team — except Katie, who rattled off the possible combinations of awards and bracket matches that could get the team to regionals. The RoboKnights dejectedly packed 1717B into a black plastic tub.
Within an hour, Katie’s phone dinged with an email from VEX Robotics, congratulating the RoboKnights on qualifying for the regional tournament. It wasn’t clear how big of an impact Katie’s stunt with the Pathfinders had played in the team’s success, but Katie considered it her finest maneuver.
“It’s just insane the measures I’ll go to to get us every single opportunity possible,” she said. “I got us the final run.”
When Katie got home that night, she fell asleep without eating dinner, with her contacts still in. The next day, she did the bonus problems.
Two weeks later, Katie’s dad, Christopher, stood in his slippers in the family’s cavernous kitchen, basting eggs with Kerrygold butter for a daughter who would inevitably forget to eat them.
Whatever Katie does, Team Katie Stevo assists. The night before, Sandra had taken Katie to Costco to buy fizzy drinks and cookies for the “Women in AI” event she’d organized through AI4ALL, a nonprofit founded by famed computer scientist and Stanford professor Fei-Fei Li. Later this day, Christopher was driving her to Boston University, where he’d carry in all the snacks but not stay to watch her run the event, because Katie said “that would be weird.”
No matter the activity, Katie has her parents’ complete support: soccer, rowing, softball, club basketball, robotics tournaments, conferences, college visits. They help her prepare for every camp, conference, competition and interview. “We just want her to be happy,” Christopher said.
At the event, Katie set out notebooks, pens and Starbursts for an icebreaker activity at every desk. In the corner, Olivia rushed to help Katie finish thank-you notes for the panelists — machine learning experts and software engineers from Draper, Microsoft and Liberty Mutual. Katie planned to network at the end.
Most of the 27 girls, all from Boston high schools, who settled into the desks were relatively new to computer science. One of the panelists started describing her job, then halted when she saw confused looks.
“Does everybody know these concepts, like AI and machine learning?” she asked. “Deep learning, neural networks?"
The room was quiet, except for the crinkle of somebody’s Starburst wrapper.
Later, when it came time for questions, a girl with hoop earrings and a black turtleneck raised her hand. Breathlessly, she explained that she was taking her second computer science class and felt overwhelmed by how well-versed the boys around her already were in Java, a programming language.
“Sometimes it can be really intimidating and you start second-guessing yourself,” the girl said. “Can you just kind of elaborate on how you find that confidence within yourself and your own work? And also how do you actually put yourself on this track and don’t just stop and give up?”
Around the room, the panelists and other girls nodded knowingly. Katie couldn’t relate.
“From a young age, I was lucky enough to kind of not look around the room and ask the question, ‘Why am I the only girl? I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m the only girl, whatever,'’’ Katie says. “It’s part of why I’ve been able to come such a long way in this field.”
She knows, in part, that she has Team Katie Stevo to thank. Until she attended AI4ALL camps, Katie didn’t understand the barriers that often keep girls from computer science: sexism, late exposure to tech, lack of investment in women’s talent. It infuriated her.
She’s fighting back how she can, teaching coding to kids and hosting events promoting STEM for young women and recruiting girls to the robotics team. But she doesn’t feel shaped by the same forces.
Ted Steiner, 32, works on autonomous systems at Draper and has mentored Katie since her freshman year. The first time they met, their conversation was so engaging that he had to leave twice to feed the parking meter. He wanted to help her distill her motivations and show her pathways beyond “the Mark Zuckerberg route.”
“She’s driven by curiosity,” Steiner said. “I don’t think she’s looking for fame or glory."
Katie has yet to encounter any significant hurdles in tech; she struggles to imagine them. She considers this an asset, something that will serve her well in the field or in the boardroom.
This is her “superpower,” but it could also be her “kryptonite,” said Tiffany Shumate, who used to direct programs for AI4ALL and has mentored Katie since her freshman year.
“Katie is so magical because she defies those barriers and doesn’t see them,” she said. But Shumate also wonders what will happen when Katie inevitably runs up against them.
On March 5, Katie left school without knowing it would be her last normal day at BB&N. When she went back for her stuff the following week, her home of the past four years was a ghost town. She packed up the robotics field and took a last walk through the building, lingering in the quiet room where she’d spent so much time working.
Because of the pandemic, everything was canceled: her spring break trip to South Korea, her Girls Who Code camp, regionals, prom, the student council banquet. Instead of a traditional graduation ceremony, BB&N staged a drive-by event. Katie accepted her diploma through the sunroof of the minivan.
Other students mourned the implosion of senior year, but Katie didn’t allow herself to be sentimental: “High school wasn’t ‘it’ for me. If we’re talking about a marathon, that was probably just a mile marker."
As Massachusetts became a pandemic hot spot, Katie lived in lockdown. She fumed over those who ignored the science and didn’t follow the guidelines about social gatherings and masks.
She tried to slow down, but it felt uncomfortable. She started sleeping seven or eight hours a night and started eating breakfast. She watched “Survivor.” She went for aimless drives, cooked dinner with her family. “I’ve never spent this much time at home in my entire life,” she said, a month into quarantine.
Her friends were racked with boredom, but Katie filled her hours — revisiting old projects, building a craps table and learning to count cards. She did a five-week online camp with Affectiva, the emotion detection tech company. She persuaded her parents to buy her a 3-D printer as an early graduation present, then made dozens of face shields for the Veterans Affairs hospital in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
But at night, Katie felt restless. It got harder to sleep. “I was doing a normal person’s 100 percent,” Katie said. “I don’t think my family liked seeing me like that.”
It was a good spring, sort of. Nobody Katie knew got sick. But then Harvard wait-listed her and Stanford and MIT said no. It stung, but Katie put on her game face: “I’m going to make them wish they took me.” She got into “quite a few schools” in Massachusetts, plus Georgia Tech, one of the only public schools to which she had applied and the one farthest from home.
Her pros and cons list for Georgia Tech was pro-heavy, so the college counselor suggested Katie spend a day pretending to be a Georgia Tech student. Katie had trouble buying in. She’d never expected to be more than a quick car ride away from her family. They’d never missed a basketball game or robotics competition. They’d smoothed out bumps in ways she never noticed, until she imagined having to do it all herself.
Which was why, in the end, she decided to leave them. “I just knew if I was near my family they’d still be able to help me,” Katie said.
The whole family made the 18-hour drive from Boston to Atlanta for move-in. They stopped only in places with low coronavirus case counts, where they saw people wearing masks at gas stations. Katie and Olivia slept together in the back seat, like they did when they were little.
They moved Katie in the smothering Atlanta heat, then again when she had to switch rooms. Katie’s parents stayed an extra couple of days to make sure Katie was settled in, but when they dropped her off in the parking lot outside her dorm for the last time, Katie started crying.
“You have to go,” Sandra said, “so you can start your company.”
Katie thought she’d be home by now. She expected, hoped even, that schools would close within a month. But as of November, more than halfway through her first semester, she’s still alone in Atlanta.
Every morning at 7:30, she wakes up and makes the five-foot commute from her bed to her desk. Katie busies herself with 19 credit hours — classes in Java and MATLAB, linear algebra, philosophy, a start-up lab — into the predawn hours. She got perfect scores on everything she turned in for the first four weeks.
She wouldn’t call what she feels loneliness exactly, but life seems small and strange to her now. Sometimes, when she finds herself working past 3 a.m. on assignments that aren’t due for days, she’ll wonder: “Katie, what is wrong with you?”
She figures her productivity would take a hit if schools shut down and she had to go home to her family.
“I wouldn’t mind that,” Katie said. “Wouldn’t mind that at all.”
Katie misses the Boston air and the abundance of Dunkin’ shops. She misses the Celtics gear and soldering iron and sneaker collection she left in her bedroom in Wellesley.
Her dorm walls in Georgia are cinder block, bare. There are no photos of her friends or family.
“If I’m reminded too much of my family, then I’m going to be sad,” she said. “So I can’t have photos up.”
She never wanted to be one of those STEM students chained to a desk; she wanted to get out and meet people. But Katie only leaves her dorm to go to the bathroom or the dining hall, where snaking lines of students make social distancing impossible and waiting can take hours. Other students sit outside and eat together, but the risk isn’t worth it to Katie: “I don’t have time to get covid.”
She’s made one concession — every few weeks, she plays poker with other freshmen in her dorm.
“I think you need it,” Katie said, “or you go a little insane."