CSpotlight: Finding A Community That Shares My Passions
Why did you choose to pursue a degree in computer science specifically at the University of Minnesota?
At first, I wasn’t interested in doing Computer Science at all. I always knew I wanted to become a scientist or work on cool technology, so I started with Electrical Engineering. I took an AP Computer Science class in high school and hated it at the time, actually. The first course I took for Electrical Engineering was about Computer Systems which gave me a much better introduction to both hardware and software. Seeing the applications of software in terms of hardware, in the class, pushed me to pursue software more seriously. There seemed to be a lot of resources and I could do personal projects without any additional costs, as compared to having to buy hardware products.
In terms of the University of Minnesota itself, one of the reasons I chose this school was my parents. My parents and I moved to Minnesota from India and I didn’t want to leave them, because we were all very new to the country. Additionally, the computer science program at the U of M is great and very extensive compared to other schools closer to home.
How did you become interested in computer science? What are your specific interests within the field?
When I switched from Electrical Engineering to CS, I obviously wanted to dive into software stuff, but I didn't know what aspect of software I wanted to do – so I started with research. I ended up doing Neuromodulation research at Dr. Johnson's lab that introduced me to machine learning. I immediately fell in love with it and its impact. I want to say that machine learning is definitely one of the fields that I love and enjoy.
Another thing that has always intrigued me is the hardware aspect of things. Because I started with electrical engineering, I was always intrigued with hardware. A driving question I have always been intrigued by is “How do we get from binaries, just a bunch of ones and zeros, to building such powerful software that we use in our day-to-day lives?” I think that's why I wanted to explore the hardware side of things and get into optimization and hardware computing. I haven't had any experience with that, but that is something that I am slowly learning about. I've recently been very intrigued about combining machine learning with high-performance computing. There is just so much to delve into! This is why I like computer science. It is very versatile and there's so many things to explore. I will never be bored. I think it’s super cool how much we can build and the impact it has on people.
Congratulations on earning the Hopper-Dean Scholarship! How will this scholarship impact your academic and extracurricular work?
I am from India and money has always been not a very expendable resource. So, I am very privileged to have this scholarship. This scholarship has helped me invest more money outside of school to learn more and establish more connections. One of the biggest things is going to conferences and making more connections. I was able to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration partly because of the scholarship. by allocating my funding that would go into tuition to the conference. It's definitely going to have an impact on my career and academic life, because I can genuinely focus on learning and growing instead of worrying if I can take all the classes I want.
Tell us more about your internship experiences.
This past summer I did my first internship with Pearson Vue. I was on the innovations team and I collaborated with the machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) team. My role was basically to explore different AI software that have come up recently and checking if we can include that or incorporate it with Pearson Vue’s infrastructure. One of the projects that I've worked on is creating an interface similar to ChatGPT for Pearson Vue itself. I worked on building a smaller prototype for the project which is now under development to make it accessible on a much larger scale. The Pearson community was very welcoming and I was able to connect with the CTO of the company! They arranged meetings with the CTO and the CEO of the company for all interns which is representative of their culture. They also asked me to present my work during the internship in front of their senior executive team. I don't see a lot of companies give that kind of opportunity to people. That genuinely helped me feel more welcomed in the tech community, and it's very hard to get that as a woman in STEM or a woman in computer science.
Are you involved in any student groups? What inspired you to get involved?
I have been involved in a lot of different student groups starting freshman year, but the one that I’m still a part of is the Science and Engineering Student Board (SESB). I am their mental health community director currently. When I was doing electrical engineering, I was involved in Engineering World Health (EWH), IEEE, Indian Student Association, and Minnesota Junoon (a Bollywood fusion dance team on campus). I think one of the primary reasons I started joining these clubs was because I wanted to grow my community and meet people that are equally as passionate about working in their fields as I was. Each one of these student organizations fills at least one passion of mine. With EWH and the SESB, I wanted to find more computer science and engineering (CSE) people who are also interested in medical technology. The Minnesota Junoon helped me be part of a dance community, and the Indian Student Association helped me find a community that also has ties to India. I think community is a big aspect of my personality because I feel inspired by other people. I think these student organizations have helped me find myself, realign my priorities, and build a community that aligns with my values so I can push myself more.
What do you hope to contribute to the computer science community at the University?
I’m not sure how much of an impact I can have, but I try to have an impact through SESB, first as their student outreach committee director, and now as their mental health director. Recently, I have been able to hear people's concerns in terms of mental health and, in the past, I have organized events to bring the CSE community closer through the student outreach committee. Over time, I’ve tried to contribute to my community by building strong connections with the deans and trying to bridge the gap between students and faculty. That's one way that I’ve been able to give back to the community that has given so much to me. I have also been able to give back to the community through my research projects that have also pushed me to grow more.
Have you been involved with any research on campus?
I’ve had two research opportunities on campus, both in the Biomedical department. The first one that I’ve mentioned already is the Neuromodulation group under Dr. Johnson. This is where I was able to build supervised machine learning models in order to predict their UPDRS scores which is a metric of how far along a patient’s Parkinson's disease is. I felt like I had a huge impact on that project because I had to build it end to end and help out with data collection. That was my first involvement with research. I think that has been a huge way for me to solidify my passion for computer science and helped me give back to my community.
My second research was with Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center where I was researching Macular Degeneration, which is the blind spot in your eyes that forms as you grow older. We're working on a virtual reality (VR) solution to remap the words around this blind spot to help make the patient read faster and more effortlessly. I’ve been working on getting that algorithm down and hopefully integrating it soon. I guess both of these research opportunities showed me how truly impactful computer science can be and how it can impact the future of a lot of different fields. It helps push the limits of what humans can do.
What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?
People should be disciplined about the things that they find fun. I think that's the biggest thing I’ve learned. I’ve been disciplined about dance, reading, computer science, and my work in general. Whatever your passion or whatever you find fun, just stay disciplined and just do one percent better everyday. It seems very philosophical but genuinely I think that's been a leading factor recently in my life. Motivation is an emotion, it's like a chemical reaction and it's going to come and go. College is the time where you start doing things that are truly impactful and can be applied to the world. It’s so important to stay motivated and disciplined. Even if you're growing one percent every day, the compound effect is immense.
Another bit of advice I would give people is to build connections and find your community as soon as possible. Not the community you party with, but the community that you grow with. Those are very different communities and it will help make or break your career. I took it very lightly my freshman year and I felt the consequences. Finding your community helps push you more.
What are your plans after graduation?
I’m hoping to do the Integrated Masters Program in computer science at the University of Minnesota. As of now those are currently my plans and hopefully have an internship. I hope to have a full time job after getting my Masters. I have also been super passionate about Neurotech recently, so being able to work for a Neurotech company would be the dream.
Are there any additional experiences you did that you would like to highlight?
Invest in personal projects. At the end of the day, whatever you do in class can only take you so far. If someone wants to get into the industry, that's what matters, that's what a lot of employers are looking for – how do you better yourself everyday. It’s more about how you apply yourself and what you learn in class, and you cannot take shortcuts. You need to genuinely be passionate about learning. Doing personal projects has genuinely helped me elevate how I’m learning.