How do you feel about AI?

Ali Calloway comments on Dr. Michael Pencina’s journey, beginning a young Polish boy, dreaming to become a soccer commentator, to leading as a respected Vice Dean for Data Science and Director of AI Health at Duke University.

Speaking with Dr. Pencina during his career talk, as he presents his story about how he is able to sit in front of us as the Director of AI Health of Duke University and Vice Dean for Data science was one of the most humorous and compelling anecdotes I have ever heard.

We broke the ice with an engaging conversation about what concerns we, as Huang Fellows, share with artificial intelligence. I wonder about the ethics bounding AI: more specifically, will ethical guidelines and rules continue to develop at the same trajectory as the innovation. Fellow Anne Sacks thinks about how similar AI is to humans, especially in how it learns to be so. Fellow Diya Patel is concerned about how the advancement of AI will change current job availability and fields. As a group, we presented to Dr. Pencina that there is a simultaneous appreciation and fear about the presence and growth of AI in how it can/will affect science and society.

This conversation then shifted to listening to Dr. Pencina start from the beginning. As a highschool student in communist Poland, young Michael wanted to become a soccer commentator; in fact, he settled on pursuing a degree in journalism to support this dream. A lost competition in commentating and a won competition in math was enough to convince him to switch his focus from an interpretive judge to an objective one: a math and physics profile (with expanded English) in high school would be successful if he was. In 10th grade, after communism had fallen in Poland, Pencina ventured to the United States for the first time through an exchange program. There, he acquainted himself well with his exchange family living in Iowa as he attended highschool and reaffirmed his propensity for mathematics.

Similar to high school and college students today, Pencina was unsure of what he wanted to pursue after graduating highschool. Throughout the program, our Huang mentors have stressed the idea that most successful people did not confine themselves to a linear path. Pencina was ready to attend college and excited about the more practical aspects of life that come with college decisions, but if it were not for a visiting professor from Boston University posting signs for students interested in US exchange programs, Dr. Pencina’s life could look completely different. Pencina’s acceptance into his PhD program at Boston prompted his careers as a temporary babysitter, research assistant, biostatistics teaching assistant, and statistician for risk prediction. His grit and perseverance not only offered him a way to stay in the United States to pursue his degree without great financial burden, but also a way to introduce himself into the type of work he was interested in.

“Know where your heart is in your work, you do not want to be spread too thin”

Throughout his career Dr. Pencina has been actively involved in the design and analysis of clinical studies. Dr. Pencina served as an Associate Professor in the Department of Biostatistics at Boston University and the Framingham Heart Study and as the Director of Statistical Consulting at the Harvard Clinical Research Institute. Now, serving as the Director of Duke AI Health and Vice Dean for Data Science, he is responsible for implementing strategies that pertain to the educational, clinical, and data science missions of Duke. He had a few lines that he viewed as integral pieces to establishing himself in his field.


  • Know where your heart is in your work, you do not want to be spread too thin
  • There is power in publication.
  • Sometimes you are ahead of your time in your field, sometimes on time, but hopefully not behind!
  • Technical skills are 50% or less of the job in higher positions, interpersonal relationships and communication are most important.
  • Evaluation is more important than development of LLMs: AI is supposed to serve humans, not the other way around.


Alexandria Calloway, Huang Fellow ’26

Vivian AppleAlexandria is a first-year student from Fort Lauderdale, FL in Trinity College of Arts & Sciences intending to major in Biochemistry and potentially minor in Computer Science and Global Health.