CSpotlight: Cracking the climate code

Audrey Kelly brings an environmental lens to every aspect of her life. During her first year at the U of M, she discovered that she could use a degree in computer science to chase her dream of directly mitigating climate change. The B.S. student is already driving positive change within the campus community, and recently drafted a resolution to help the University reach its climate goals.

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

In my senior year of high school, I was part of the PSEO program at the University of Minnesota. I was able to take a few courses that I really enjoyed and spend some time on campus before making my college decision.

When I applied, my intended major was actually astrophysics. There were only a few schools that offered this program and UMN was one of them. I had always planned to move away from Minnesota for school, but I really felt at home on our campus from my time as a PSEO student. Plus, it was the best deal financially for my family.

Two years later, I am very grateful I chose the U—I love going to a big school where you will never run out of opportunities to try something new.

How did you become interested in computer science?

Growing up, my favorite and best subject was math. Hence, I had often been told to try computer science, but my high school only offered one course and it never worked with my schedule.

During my first semester at the University, I took CSCI 1133H to see if I would like to add a minor in computer science. The class was a struggle at first because more than half of the small class had been coding for years and I had zero programming experience.

Concurrently, I was not enjoying physics as much as I had hoped, and I began to worry about the limited career options in astrophysics. Although I love cosmology, I didn’t want to spend my entire life looking up at the sky and ignoring all the problems we have on Earth. As a teenager, I had already started to worry about our warming winters and was frustrated about the United States’ lack of action to address climate change.

At the end of the semester, I had a pivotal conversation with my computer science TA about her research experience programming robots to recognize and pick up trash in the ocean. She helped me realize that I could go after my dream of participating in climate change mitigation and use computer science to do so. I took another CSCI course in the spring and ended up changing my intended major to computer science.

Now that I am more than halfway through my degree, I am so thankful I followed my heart. I genuinely love to code and I am so excited to use it in the future to benefit the environment.

Tell us more about your internship at Unisys. What was one valuable experience that you got out of the internship?

This past summer, I was a System Engineer Intern at Unisys, a company that develops enterprise computing systems. It was a great opportunity to write my own feature, create an accompanying user interface, perform tests, and compose documentation.

I picked up many new skills, such as writing my own API in a new programming language, using Visual Studio, and participating in Agile/SCRUM sprints. I was also given the opportunity to gain some cloud-computing experience on Microsoft Azure. At the end of the summer, I was able to gain my Microsoft Azure Fundamentals certification!

How did you decide to get involved with the Minnesota Student Association (MSA)?

Similar to my major, I never expected to become involved with the Minnesota Student Association or any form of student government in college. During my freshman year, I decided to get involved with the Science and Engineering Student Board (SESB). SESB’s main mission is to advocate for CSE students to gain more resources and support for the college. Come spring semester, they needed a replacement for the Student Group Representative for SESB within MSA. I volunteered and started attending MSA meetings every week.

During my sophomore year, I was elected as External Relations Director for SESB, so I continued to take part in MSA meetings. The past three semesters of membership have allowed me to meet new students in all different disciplines and hear diverse opinions on the University’s state of affairs.

My favorite part of being involved with MSA is being a part of the Environmental Accountability Committee. Everyone is so passionate about helping the University be more sustainable and eco-friendly. Last spring, I helped research, write, and present a resolution calling for the complete divestment of fossil fuels by the University. It feels great to contribute to our University reaching climate goals and being more environmentally friendly, especially since we are such a large school. Even something as small as placing compost bins in all campus buildings will make a big impact on the amount of waste we are producing across campus.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Expect to struggle during your first two years and fail at least one test (for me, it was physics). Learn to ask for help and develop new study strategies. If everything is easy, you’re not challenging yourself to grow.

After you’ve taken the introductory sequence of computer science courses, try out as many electives as you have room for. Reflect on what interests you, what you excel at, and what you are passionate about. Keep an open mind, especially when it comes to internships and career opportunities. Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and try something even if it does not appeal to you at first.

Study abroad if you have the financial means and academic flexibility to do so! I am currently abroad in Ireland for the fall semester and it has been one of the best decisions I have made.

Finally, be confident and be resilient!

What are your plans after graduation?

My ultimate dream after graduation is to find an entry-level software engineer position for a carbon capture and storage company. Alternatives would be working in renewable energy, electrical efficiency, or any business directly mitigating climate change.

I think I would like to go back to school to get my Masters's degree at some point, but I plan to work for two to three years in industry beforehand. We are running out of time to act on climate change, so I am eager to receive my degree and contribute more fully to the solution.