1. In layperson's terms, explain what you do.
At the base of everything, I really think that computer science is solving a problem. At the end of the day, unless you are in academia, working on theory, you are using computer science as a tool to address some issue.
At my internship, that meant creating Chat Bots, which created a need for faster access to data.
As a student, it means trying to gain as much information as possible. It is learning the tools necessary to solve problems and build things, like websites, or databases.
2. Why did you choose to pursue computer science?
I kind of fell into it. My dad has worked in the entrepreneurship realm for the past 20 years. So, I think soon after I was born, he was already transitioning into entrepreneurship. He's always been that tech savvy guy. He loves to read the news and learn about what's new out there. I think just growing up around that, it just seeped into my own interests.
Fast-forwarding to my time at high school, I learned a lot about math and science and I liked STEM, but I didn't like all of it. For the longest time, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. You're taught that biology and chemistry and calculus are important subjects because that's what is on the docket. I think once I heard that people were taking AP computer science. I quickly identified that I liked STEM because it meant solving problems. I really liked Geometry because I liked writing proofs. I liked debating and putting together an argument. All that fell together into CS. I tried the class and enjoyed myself. After that, I identified CS as a potential major, and I haven't come across anything that has changed my mind since!
3. What is your favorite aspect of your internship?
One thing they don't really teach you in school when you are learning computer science is what it means to work in industry. This summer was a huge eye-opener in that respect. When you're in school, you are given problem sets. They are all very isolated toys or games essentially. You build something and it exists for the sake of that project, and it goes away when you're done.
This summer, some of the other interns and I did build something from the ground up. We built a new library for Putnam developers to create Chat Bots. We also had to figure out how we could fit that into the existing infrastructure. Our chatbots were really a new interface to access data from their databases. We had to figure out how do we set up a new system of security to make sure people's data was protected, and that only the right people could access it. We had to learn what it means to maintain a server and how to use micro-services to make sure your bots are running in the right place. There were so many things that I hadn't even thought about when I was in the classroom.
4. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Definitely being thrown into all this new technology and new concepts that I hadn't really learned about before. Before this summer, the most CS experience I'd had was tutoring for some intro courses at Wellesley. It has definitely been a challenge, and I have had to spend a lot of time digging through tutorials, and documentation to try and figure out what is going on! I didn't even know what a microservice was and had to figure out how to use this tool to build the system I had been asked to create.
5. What does being a computer scientist mean to you?
It means I get to build things that have a lasting impact on people in a positive way.
6. What roadblocks have you faced on your path to where you are today?
For me, it has been a lot about self-motivation and being more confident in myself. Especially in such a male-dominated field, it is easy to forget that you're capable of more than you think. The age of entry, or where you are in educational journey when you enter CS to some people plays a big role how well you succeed, or at least it is perceived to be that way. In tutoring the intro CS class, I saw quite a few girls worried about internships over the summer. Not only that, but the ones that did have internships struggled with feeling unqualified. I definitely felt the same way going into my internship this summer as well. I quickly realized that even though I'm interning alongside rising seniors at technical institutions, I still had great ideas and was able to perform and excel even though I was less experienced. I think self-doubt is a huge barrier for a lot of people. It definitely was for me
7. What has been your greatest achievement in your career so far?
I don't know if I've had that moment quite yet as I am still quite early on in my career. That said, my final presentation at Putnam was a pretty big high. I got to present in front of the managing board of the digital technology division at Putnam. That included the Chief Technology Officer and his team: the head of operations I think you mentioned some other people but I couldn't hear, and the Head of Security. These are some people who had made a huge name for themselves in the industry I am looking to get into. It was just amazing because they sat there and listened to me talk for an hour. They were actually interested in what I was saying, and they work that I had done. It was a really fulfilling and interesting experience. It was a confirmation that what I was working for has been worth it.
8. What do you believe is the most important thing for girls to know before pursuing computer science?
You need to try things. Boys are taught to be fearless and are told, "if you see interesting, try it". The culture around girls is quite different and is about doing what you're supposed to do. When it comes to education, girls need to be more fearless. They should be more open to trying new things.
One thing I have learned from this summer is that I need to love and be passionate the product I am working on. That means maybe not choosing the classes that look the best or the most useful, but choosing the classes that they like, and are passionate about.
Another piece of advice is don't be afraid to put yourself out there for opportunities. It goes back to this idea of self-doubt and thinking you're not qualified for jobs. I have actually been told by multiple people to go and apply for things you aren't qualified for. Most likely, they'll respond saying, "sure, that's ok, we still want to talk to you" or they might offer you another opportunity that you are more qualified for. If neither of those things happens, you get your name on the radar. Getting yourself out there is probably the most important thing you can do. If you have that work ethic, and people can see that, it is all the better for you.
CS is all about learning on the fly, so more than anything, if you can think like a programmer and know how to learn new things, you're set.
9. What is one problem that you would like to see solved in the next 10 years?
Tech policy. I think that stems from the idea that technology is becoming a very mature industry but there are no standards for what happens when things go wrong. It takes so long for laws to be put into place that in this industry, that is already becoming well established, people have free reign. When you think about lawyers and doctors, if someone screws up there are consequences. You can lose your license or be disbarred. The same standards don't exist in STEM, which is concerning.
Recently Facebook's AI created a new language which is really concerning. To the naked eye, it is composed of words that make sense, but they are strung together in ways that don't make sense. You can't understand it. These AIs have substituted readability by humans for efficiency. What happens if you allow this AI to control your system? What if it does something impacts somebody in a negative way? What happens then?
Developers need to think about the negative impact of what they are building.
One example of this is the commercialization of 3D printers. This has been a life-changing tool and has allowed people to build prosthetic arms and other cool things that would be otherwise inaccessible to themselves. You don't think about what would happen if people built a plastic gun. There are very real consequences to things people are developing. I would hope that people get more responsible.
I think at the end of the day, technology is going to go one of 2 ways. Either it is going to take over everything and be really terrible or it is going to take over everything and be really great. Or maybe a combination of both.
10. What motivates you? – This one was tricky to make out
I do things I find interesting. I think a lot of that motivation comes from wanting to help people. One thing I missed this summer was talking to clients and users and hear what problem am I trying to address. I love hearing people's stories. I think if I'm building something for somebody, I would like to know more about them and what they want to use it for. The drive comes from wanting to get to the stage where I can build things have a positive impact and helps people.
11. How do you define success? – This one was also tricky to hear
I think if I build something, and someday someone comes back to me and says "Hey, I used your product, and this thing happened to me. It was really great". I think that would make me feel incredibly successful. I think if I have built something that has made someone's life easier, or improved their life in some way I would say that I have succeeded.
12. Which figure in science do you most admire and why?
One person I've looked up to and found very inspiring is Katherine Goble Johnson, NASA mathematicians and one of the main characters portrayed in the film Hidden Figures. When I watched Hidden Figures the first time I was so inspired. I was watching it in bed, and I finished the movie and I just felt so empowered and wanted to get up do something! That charge came from seeing a woman of color making an impact using her programming skills. Learning about Grace Hopper, another female computer at NASA kind of gave me a similar feeling. I really admire the female computers who worked at NASA. I found it amazing that women were hired for comparing positions as it was considered a menial task. The tables have flipped now. I just found it so amazing that even though not much was expected of them, these women were the early pioneers of computer science!
13. If you weren't pursuing computer science, what would you be doing?
I think my interest in CS is also impacted by my fascination with how humans work. I took a psychology course in the fall, really loved it. I thought that it was so cool that all these things that I had experienced throughout my life had actual names and people have studied them. I also took a cool class this semester in Forensic Anthropology. Think CSI! It was cool learning about what bones are in the human body and what you can tell about a human's life from their remains. I think I would probably be doing research in one of those areas.
I also have this dream of going to culinary school and becoming a pastry chef. I have always loved baking and cooking. That is probably not going to happen soon, but I'd love to go to Le Cordon Bleu and become a certified pastry chef. I think that making desserts is the coolest thing because you can make so many people happy with this thing that you make.
14. What one book do you recommend everyone read, and why?
I don't read a lot, which is something I want to change. I do, on the other hand, listen to a lot of podcasts. I think that they are such an undervalued form of information delivery.
One that I have really loved is Part Time Genius. They take a weird topic or question and do a whole episode talking all about it. I find it fascinating.
Another podcast I enjoy is called Tech stuff. They recently did a two part series about the history of programming languages. My last recommendation is called Stuff Mom Never Told You. It features two women talking about issues that affect women. They talk about mansplaining and mental illness in women of color.
15. What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Just try things! The computer science department at Wellesley is such a tight-knit, outspoken and welcoming community. Everyone is so helpful. There was a Professor I had for an Intro to CS course, and I really liked her. I hadn't seen her in a few months but as I was leaving the CS building she spotted me, and suggested that we meet up and chat about what I wanted to do next year, and asked me to let her give me advice. She was the one who told me to "Try it, and if you don't like it, change it."
On top of that, something I have taken away for myself is, especially as a woman of color in computer science, you should help strangers even if there isn't anything in it for you. It will come back to you in some form.
16. If you could invent anything or make any discovery, what would it be and why?
Teleportation! I am from Hong Kong, and my family is there, but I live and go to school in America. As much as I love going home, it is a 16-hour flight. It means that I can't just pop home for a break. I am realizing now more than ever that taking ample time to refresh and reboot is, in the long run, better for you than just trying to push through.
17. If you could go back in time what advice would you give your high school self?
Be less concerned about what other people would think of my choices. Specifically, when it comes to my education. I took a lot of AP classes because I thought that colleges like it. I wish that I had taken more classes that I loved. I left high school with 3 regrets. I never took a pottery class, I never took a film scoring and something else that you had forgotten. I always had classes that I'd always wanted to take but never had the guts to. Moving into college, I tried to do that. I made a point to classes that I wasn't sure that I would excel in but that I thought were interesting. That has been going pretty well so far!
18. What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful computer scientist?
19. How would you say your gender has impacted your experience as a computer scientist?
I don't think I did enough computer science in high school to feel gender a gender bias then. I also go to a women's college so I don't see the gender bias in the classroom.
I think I really felt my gender this summer at my internship. I had a white male coworker who would interrupt me. He would speak over me whenever I was tried to say something. He would never involve me in group discussions, and when he did talk to me, it was in a very condescending way. Having to deal with that all summer became very frustrating. When I confronted him about it, he completely ignored me for the rest of the summer. I felt that very deeply because I'd never come across a situation like this before – someone trying to stop me from doing my job and learning.
20. Is there any other information or advice you'd like to share with the readers?
Listen to yourself about your own interests. Be honest with yourself when you aren't enjoying something because that probably means it is going to leave a negative impact and that isn't productive. Try to lean into the things that you genuinely like and feel passionate about. I would also advise you not to be too quick to judge. Just because you don't like political science or chemistry now, you might really enjoy it when it is presented to you in a new light in the future.
If you have any further questions, you can reach Lauren at email@example.com