CSpotlight: Taking chances in Minnesota

B.A. student (and Wisconsin native) Peter Genatempo had no plans to attend the University of Minnesota, but a chance visit to the campus changed all that. Once here, he attended a meeting of the cloud computing club at the request of a friend and found a space to work on machine learning projects. Now, he's taking the leap into graduate coursework thanks to the integrated program.

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

I chose the University of Minnesota partially by chance. I was in the Twin Cities for a hockey tournament and for some reason, I asked my parents if we could tour the campus in between games. I’m not sure why I did this as I’d never expressed any interest in the university before this time—but this proved to be life-changing!

I fell in love with the campus and its location right in the heart of Minneapolis and St Paul. Once I got home, I did some research into the computer science program and faculty and I knew I’d be getting a high-quality education here.

How did you become interested in computer science?

I first became interested in computer science in high school. One of my engineering classes had some programming involved in it and that sparked my interest in the field. After this, I did some learning on the internet to make fun little projects at home to show my family. I really enjoyed the ability to build something from scratch and instantly be able to share it with people.

What made you decide to pursue your master’s through the integrated program?

This was an easy decision! I’ve enjoyed my time at the University of Minnesota and the opportunity to complete my master’s in only one additional year after the completion of my bachelor’s degree was a huge plus. Now, rather than graduating a semester early, I’m able to gain additional skills that will hopefully benefit me in the future during my career.

Tell us more about your research in the GroupLens lab.

I joined GroupLens in the spring of 2020 as an undergraduate researcher working with associate professor Lana Yarosh. For the past year and a half, I’ve been paired with a Ph.D. candidate working on a project building collaborative reading technologies for intergenerational mentorship. In this role, I’ve been able to build a lot of new skills in web development, computer vision and image processing, and networking to name a few.

This past summer, I was offered a position in the CS&E REU program to continue working on this project with Dr. Yarosh. This was a great opportunity to focus on my own research without the distraction of classes. Now, in addition to my main project, I’m a part of a small group from GroupLens doing some exploratory research into hybrid group meetings. This has been an amazing experience as it has allowed me to work closely with three professors from within the lab exploring new ideas and asking questions we don’t know the answers to yet.

I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in social computing to look into GroupLens and get in touch with any of the professors about participating on a research project.

What made you join the Cloud Computing Club? What are some projects that you work on in the club?

I was invited to the first meeting by one of my friends who was interested in joining the club to learn more about cloud computing. I didn’t think it was going to be something that I would actually join and participate in but I had nothing else to do that afternoon so I went just to see what it was all about. The two seniors that organized everything were great guys and were very welcoming to all the newcomers with our varying degrees of knowledge on the subject.

After the first meeting, I decided to keep coming back and participated in their weekly “lectures” and “labs”. Funny enough, all of the projects we worked on while I was a part of the club had nothing to do with cloud computing. Our informal weekly “lectures” focused on AWS and their cloud platform and during our “labs” we worked on projects that focused on machine learning.

Our first project was an image classification system that could sort an input image into a specific category. This was really cool to do as it was my first experience with machine learning. The last project was a chatbot that we trained with thousands of movie scripts. This one didn’t work quite as well as the image classifier but it was fun to interact within the terminal and have a rudimentary conversation with a piece of software.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

I have two tips for new computer science students.

First, find a friend or two that is also in computer science and see if you can synchronize your schedules so that you have a familiar face in all your core classes. College lectures are big so this will help you feel more comfortable in each class and it will give you someone to study or work on group projects with throughout the semester.

Second, don’t be intimidated by other students in your classes. There are so many smart people at the University of Minnesota that it is easy to look at them and feel like you are falling behind or not smart enough to be in computer science. Everyone has times in their academic career where they feel inadequate and think about quitting. All I can say is that if these feelings come up, use it as motivation rather than acting prematurely and switching to a different major that seems easier. Computer science is hard but it is worth the struggle—you’ve got this!!

What are your plans after graduation?

I’m still exploring some interests before making any decisions on my post-graduation plans so that is TBD! Right now, I’m looking at software engineering and data science roles but I’m also not ruling out the option of pursuing a Ph.D. since I’ve enjoyed my research experience so much.