CSpotlight: The Art of Learning Languages
Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?
I actually started out as a psychology major, so choosing the University of Minnesota had more to do with psychology than computer science. Still, it was a really good school for psychology. In terms of computer science, I started taking some classes in the spring of my freshman year. It was hard at first because I’m new to computer science. I ended up liking the teaching faculty for the most part so I found a nice community of computer science friends.
How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?
I started off as a psych major. I knew I was interested in cognitive psychology or cognitive science, which is a mixture of psychology, computer science, linguistics, and philosophy. I knew I was interested in it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I wanted to take a couple of computer science courses and maybe do a minor. I took CSCI-1133, which is the first computer science course in Python. What I really liked about computer science is how logical it is, especially after being a humanities student. Even though it was difficult at first, I realized I liked thinking in the logical method of computer science, since I am naturally a rational person. Additionally, I like learning languages whether they are human or machine. After I started taking a couple of computer science courses, I realized that each course had a different language focus. I thought it was similar to learning human languages because you end up finding similarities and differences between languages. It’s always fun to say, “Oh I'm fluent in this language,” so that's what led me to computer science because of the languages and logic. Also, I really like abstract thinking. I'm not a super hands-on person, and I don’t want to do any engineering. I like that I can code something, and that's some sort of science. I like that I don’t have to do any work with my hands. I realized that I like languages and I like coding, so I should just go into natural language processing, which is what Chat GPT is based on. In the future, I am interested in going into artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing.
Congratulations on earning the Presidential Scholarship and Optim Scholarship! How will this scholarship impact your academic and extracurricular work?
It makes it easier because I can worry less about tuition. I think that tuition in the U.S. is too high and I think that it is a burden on students to not be able to have a full-time job and also have to pay off loans in the future. I didn't like that idea so any scholarship I get helps me be less worried for the future. It helps me avoid putting pressure on myself to do multiple jobs at once. I just have one campus job that's pretty simple, I don't have to work more than 10 hours a week. It means I also have more time to do school work and extracurriculars.
Tell us more about your internship experiences.
I'm a third-year student, so I just had my first internship last summer at Graco, a manufacturing company. I was in their information systems department. My official title was Information Technology Intern for Product Lifecycle Management, My small team was in charge of this one software; that was called Team Center. We had all the parts that Graco owns on it - you can look up any part number and it will tell you everything about it. It was our job to keep the application running. Anytime they had a request about the Team Center, it was our job to make that happen. One project I did was when an engineer asked me to extract 10 fields of data about each part. I had to go and learn SQL. My supervisors were gone that week so I had to do everything myself, but it was good practice. I got to learn SQL, I got to talk to some people about making a webpage, and now it is an official intranet Graco webpage.
Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved?
I’m not in too many right now. I am in the Karate Club, although I'm taking a break this semester. I was inspired to join the Karate Club because I’m a social person, so I needed some form of exercise that was also social so I could be held accountable. Karate also has a big mental aspect to it, because you are trained to be calm and find a center of focus before each training session. I think that really helps with my school work and personal life because, without focus, you can't do anything. I really appreciate that. It is constant training so I will go back and it's nice to be able to progress through your belts so you can see your progress. My exercise inspired me to stay involved but I stayed for many other reasons.
What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?
I’m an immigrant. I was born in Pune, India. When I was 8 years old, we moved here to Plymouth. Since I’m an immigrant, trilingual woman in STEM, I want to advocate for people who look like me and have a similar background whenever I can. It's not easy to be a woman of color in a STEM space. I want to do more. I eventually want to be a TA, because I had an old TA who was also an Indian girl and I asked her if I should be a TA. She told me that I should, because when she first started, most TAs were Caucasian men and it's very encouraging to see someone who looks like you in a difficult class. It makes you think, “Oh if they can do it, I can do it.” I want to be that kind of symbol. I don't know if I am that symbol, because I am not a TA at the moment, but I want to. I try my best to be supportive around my fellow female coders, my friends, and anyone who comes to me asking about computer science, especially women. That's how I try to make a difference.
Have you been involved with any research on campus?
I've been in two psychology research labs on campus. The first one I realized wasn't a good fit for me because it was very long-term. From then on, I knew that I wanted results from my research quickly and I wanted to see what I was doing have an impact. I switched to a different lab so that I could see results quickly. Then I realized that while I liked psychology, I’m more into computer science and decided to switch to a computer science lab. I am currently in a natural language processing group. It's been really fun that I have a Ph.D. student mentor. It gives me a peek into what graduate life is like, and how research is different from school. The best way to summarize is that you are surveying the field, you are coming up with the questions, and you are also coming up with the answers. Unlike in school where you are given the questions and have to come up with the answers. I've been liking it; it's very different from schoolwork, but I think it's good training for grad school.
What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?
If you are interested in computer science even if it's not your major, try taking major courses early on during your first semester. If I had taken more computer science classes early on, I would've been able to take more classes. Even if it's not computer science, if you're interested in a major, just take classes as early as you can to see if you like it. With major coursework, there is a sequence that you want to get started on.
Also, you need to use your resources. I wasn't planning on becoming a computer science major when I first came here, and I didn't take many computer science classes in high school. I didn't have time to develop that mindset, so it really helped me to use my resources. Especially last semester, I used to go to office hours a lot and would ask a lot of questions. The TAs have been a very supportive community and I would like to give them a shoutout for all the work they do. Talk to your TAs, ask them questions, don't be shy. Talk to your professors, they're usually really nice. Sit in the front of the class, and make friends with those people, because you're going to need to have friends with projects. It's nice to have someone your age that can help you with problems. Participate in class, join clubs, and research.
My final point is to be fearless, don't procrastinate. They go hand and hand because computer science is going to be difficult if you procrastinate. Your code will not work if you leave it until the last day. Don't be afraid of your projects. Just be fearless because it's going to be rewarding if you don't jump on them last minute.
What are your plans after graduation?
I want to go to graduate school for my master's or Ph.D. I'm not sure which one yet. I’m leaning toward a master's degree because I eventually want to be in the industry. To go into artificial intelligence/machine learning (AIML), a lot of the positions require a graduate degree, so I want to go for my master's. During my last internship, I realized that I really like working at a company, so I do not want to delay it too long. At the same time, I want the skill sets that would help me actually get a job with these kinds of companies. A Ph.D. would also be good, because AIML and natural language processing (LP) are very deep topics, and you need a few years to get a very good understanding of the basics. We’ll see but grad school is in my future.
Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight?
Everyone that I’ve met in the computer science department has been very nice. Again maybe I’ve happened to talk to nice people, but you happen to hear stereotypes that it’s going to be very exclusive. Everyone has been very nice, people will happen to overhear you talking about a class and will ask what class you're in or what you think of a class. The professors have been very nice; sometimes I would go up to them after class and they know me. Overall the Department has been very nice and I encourage anyone who wants to pursue computer science to try it out.