To celebrate Women’s History Month, a quartet of alumnae who work in computer science took part in a panel discussion hosted by Hamilton’s Coding Team. Later, several of the panelists agreed to answer some questions. Here’s what they had to say.
Leanne Hirshfield ’02
You have a doctorate in computer science; what you are doing now?
I direct research in the SHINE Lab at CU Boulder, which stands for System Human Interaction with NIRS and EEG. Basically, we blend machine learning, biotechnology, and human computer interaction. We build intelligent systems that can adapt to humans based on real-time predictions of their social, cognitive, or affective state. I’m also a co-lead on one of the research strands for the NSF-funded Institute on Student-AI Teaming.
How did you discover that you wanted to pursue computer science?
I knew I wanted to go into the sciences, and I was actually taking a blend of psych, neuroscience, and CS courses while trying to decide what to major in. I really loved the problem-solving of programming. My incredible advisor, Stu Hirshfield, helped to build my confidence and also to convince me to ‘go for it’ as there were very few women CS majors at the time. Stu, who recently retired from Hamilton, plays a dual role in my life as both my father-in-law and undergrad advisor, and I’m lucky to have him in both roles!
Have you seen opportunities expand for women in CS?
Definitely. Programming used to be seen as this kind of solitary experience with just one coder buried away at a computer workstation. Now programming is viewed as a much more team-based interdisciplinary process. Some natural capabilities that women have — communication, emotional intelligence, cross-disciplinary interests — are all things that are valued more these days in the CS domain.
Maya Montgomery ’18
Tell us about your work.
I’m working as a software developer at Syn-Apps, recently acquired by Intrado. My team writes software that handles mass communication for everyday and emergency notifications. We integrate with all kinds of devices and APIs [application programming interfaces] to unify communication within an organization. It’s challenging but rewarding work, especially because I know the software I write is making life easier for others.
How did you discover your interest in computer science?
I took an intro to computer science course on a whim, and I enjoyed the class so much that I signed up for the next one. I found that I really liked programming; problem-solving and coding can be difficult, but studying computer science helped me grow as a student and an individual. I consider myself lucky that my interest in programming translates well to the job market, too.
Why did you want to be part of the panel?
The technology field is male-dominated, and I know first-hand that being a woman in computer science can be intimidating and isolating. It’s tough being in a department or on a team where no one else looks like you, but I want to encourage women at Hamilton to fight back against imposter syndrome, support each other, and know that you have a right to be here. You don’t have to be perfect.
Minh To ’19
Tell us about your work.
I was at BlackRock as a software engineer, helping create a platform for wealth-management firms to optimize client portfolios, manage risk, and deliver financial objectives for their investors. After a year-and-a-half, I’m leaving the finance industry to join Amplitude to build a self-service product analysis tool to help companies maximize their reach and impact on internet users.
How did you discover your passion for computer science?
Through various projects in school, I discovered that I had a passion for problem-solving. I thought I would want to apply those skills, not only to finish my school projects, but also to solve more complex problems and have an impact in the real world. I found the support network within Hamilton students to be beneficial for me. Having the opportunity to discuss academic problems with my classmates and bounce ideas off of each other, as well as receiving career advice from upperclassmen who had been in my shoes, gave me a broader perspective as I prepared for a career in software development. I want to give that same support to Hamilton students, especially women and students of color who are the minority in the field.
What’s your best advice to students who want to make computer science their career?
Be curious and ready to help each other out. Technology is always evolving, and you need to be learning and growing with it. But no one grows in a silo, so collaboration in the tech world is essential in driving teams and ideas forward.
Emily Topsett ’13
Tell us about your work as a math and computer science teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey.
I’ve wanted to teach high school since I was in high school! I had a math teacher who really inspired me to love math and made me want to inspire others as well. I only started studying computer science at Hamilton and fell in love with it. I was a teaching assistant for the department, and it translated naturally into teaching computer science as well as math. I love teaching — it’s incredibly difficult and rewarding. It really is a new challenge every day; I’m always learning.
What did you hope to convey to Hamilton students while you were on campus?
Find things that you genuinely enjoy doing, things that bring you joy, and do them as often as you can. I found it in programming and teaching, and even though my job is hard, hectic — and right now especially — emotionally taxing, it is worth every moment of it. At Hamilton I also sang in the choir and was on the Mock Trial Team. Those were both things I loved doing and have continued doing them as an adult — I coach my school’s Mock Trial Team and direct the a cappella group. Do things that bring you joy!