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Bridging the Gap between Classical Studies and Computer Science

Lyndsay LaBarge '17
Lyndsay LaBarge '17

What do computer science and classical studies have in common? To start, there’s the obvious--they both can be abbreviated ‘c.s’. But if there’s one thing Hamilton taught me, it’s the importance of making connections, whether by creating lasting relationships, or by finding likeness between two seemingly disparate disciplinary studies. What follows is one many examples of how my experiences as a classicist helped me become a better computer scientist.

I started my time at Hamilton fairly certain I was going to major in biology. I wanted to be a doctor. My first semester at Hamilton was filled primarily with pre-med courses. By the second, I decided it was not for me. Scurrying to find a class with space left, the spring semester of my Freshman year I scored one of the last available seats for Introduction to Computer Science. At the time I didn’t fully understand what computer science was; all I knew was that I was fairly decent at using a computer and it was a class where I could conceivably do well.

As it turns out, there’s a lot more to computer science than being able to find your way around Microsoft Word (an important skill, but relatively unrelated). It’s 0’s and 1’s, bits, nibbles, and bytes. It’s line after line of code and a segmentation fault or two. As I learned what computer science actually was, my future started to take shape. The first line of code I wrote changed my life and set me down my career path -- print(“Hello World!”).

A semester later I once again found myself searching for a final class to fill my schedule. I happened across Classical Mythology and that is how I accidentally, or rather unintentionally, became a Classical Studies major. I never intended to major in Classical Studies; I liked learning about the time period and took one or two classics courses a semester for pure enjoyment. By the time my senior year came around, I had unknowingly fulfilled all of the major requirements. A thesis later, I successfully completed the program.

When Professor Jesse Weiner first approached me about pursuing learning Latin, he pitched the language as a logic puzzle, perhaps recognizing this would appeal to the computer scientist in me. And right he was--I found satisfaction in pulling sentences apart, making sense of the pieces, and putting them back together. Reading Latin was akin to deciphering the function of a never before seen line of code.

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In fact, there’s an entire model of algorithm design in computer science dedicated to doing just that--breaking complex problems into smaller, more manageable parts and combining the results of the subproblems to solve the original problem. Divide and conquer algorithms are designed to find optimal solutions to problems as efficiently as possible. I was inadvertently using this technique to make sense of a classical language. But this was also bidirectional process--reading Latin improved my ability to recognize patterns and determine the best way to decompose problems, both critical skills for a computer scientist.

If you are currently a student at Hamilton and reading this, I highly encourage you take advantage of the open-curriculum as much as possible. I know that I am not the first person, nor will I be the last to say this, but if a course piques your interest, try it. Taking a diverse selection of courses will exposure you to a multitude of subjects and viewpoints, allow you to make these types of connections, and enhance your overall experience. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone academically. You might surprise yourself and discover your future career.

Lyndsay LaBarge graduated from Hamilton in 2017 with a degree in computer science and classical studies. During her time at Hamilton, Lyndsay worked as a computer science teaching assistant. She currently works at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y., as an associate computer scientist and is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University.

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