CSpotlight: Blending math and computer science

Recent B.S. graduate Agnes Folga came to the U of M with a strong interest in STEM, but she was totally new to the study of computer science. Thanks to her perseverance and hard work, she found her place in the program and earned a multi-year summer internship with the Argonne National Laboratory. Her next step? Diving even deeper into computer science topics in graduate school.

Why did you choose to study computer science at the University of Minnesota?

When I was choosing a college, I knew I wanted to leave home and make a fresh start at a Big 10 engineering school. The U's computer science program interested me because it was well-respected and seemed so versatile. The professors appeared very invested in what they were teaching, and made sure their students understood the material. The department also offered courses in so many different areas of computer science, so I knew I would leave with a well-rounded background and be prepared for whatever comes my way. I’m very happy I chose a major with so many job and research opportunities, and at a great school!

What sparked your interest in computer science? Why did you also choose mathematics as a minor?

In high school, I enjoyed many of the classic STEM classes, like calculus and chemistry. I actually had never taken a computer science class before enrolling in college. I wanted to study something that I had not learned about before, and I was curious to see what the computer science field was like. Once I started the CSCI curriculum, I became intrigued by the theory behind computer science. Some of my favorite classes have been Discrete Structures (CSCI 2011) and Algorithms and Data Structures (CSCI 4041).

I decided to pursue the math minor along with my computer science degree because the foundation of a lot of computer science is math-based. In fact, many of the classes I took for my minor also counted for my major. I think a lot of students are dissuaded from taking more math classes because they think they’re too difficult or time consuming, but I’d really encourage any CSCI major to take more math courses because many of the topics overlap!

Tell us more about your summer research position at the Argonne National Laboratory. What was your favorite part of the experience?

For the past two summers, I have worked as a summer research aide at Argonne National Laboratory in the Energy and Science Division. In the summer of 2019, my assigned task was to integrate the Argonne-developed web application with a logging system which monitors the HVDC status and categorizes cyber attacks. The project goal was to test, detect, and mitigate cyberattacks, in real-time, that seek to destabilize HVDC systems. In the summer of 2020, I created a login feature with a working database for the Puerto Rico Energy Resilience Project. This project was particularly challenging for me because I had to use MySQL and encryption libraries to create a secure database connection. I plan to return to Argonne for the third time this summer, where I will be using data visualization to assist with a cybersecurity project.

The best part has been the people. Argonne is a great place to work, and the people there are so welcoming. The lab has a very diverse employee population, and not only do you get a great internship experience, but you also meet phenomenal people. I recommend the internship program to anyone who is interested in research and topics beyond just their major.

Tell us more about your internship with the East Maine School District 63.

In the summer of 2018, I was able to work as a summer IT assistant at my local school district. I assisted with technology maintenance and deployment, prepared Chromebooks for new students for the upcoming 2018-2019 school year, and fixed multiple technical issues in different settings.

While this internship was not necessarily computer science related, I was able to experience firsthand how a school district runs and learn how IT is used at grade schools.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Do not give up! For many students in CSE, the first year is quite an adjustment. During my freshman year, I questioned if I wanted to continue to pursue a computer science major. Now that I'm graduating, I am increasingly happy that I stayed with it.

I would tell any incoming freshman computer science students to trust themselves, and reach out if they need help. The department staff and upperclassmen all want you to succeed! Use your resources, make good friends, study hard, and it’ll all work out in the end! :)

What are your plans after graduation?

I plan to return home, and pursue my Master's of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I hope to go more in depth in topics related to computer science.