Western’s Computer Science Grad Students Reprogram Diversity in the Field
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Computer science: It’s a vast field with endless areas for specialization, an enormous range of career options, and an abundance of well-paying, varied jobs. With a computer science degree, doors open on a diversity of opportunities.
But the diversity of opportunities for computer scientists stands in stark contrast with a lack of diversity in a demographic sense—the field is surprisingly homogenous. According to the career search platform Zippia, 66.1 percent of computer scientists are white, and only 22.2 percent are women—a far cry from the demographics of the broader population.
Numbers like these reflect and reinforce the story of who the “typical” computer scientist is—a white male—and can be discouraging for anyone who doesn’t fit that description. Research shows that women and minorities are frequently dissuaded from pursuing computer science careers as early as middle school, which raises a question: How will the lack of diversity in computer science ever change, if underrepresented groups not only can’t see themselves in the field but are actively discouraged from pursuing a career in computer science?
It’s a problem that Western Washington University researchers and faculty are serious about addressing. In 2021, the NSF granted Western $3 million to fund a program to bring inclusive, research-based instructional practices into undergraduate departments and courses. The grant builds upon previous campuswide equity work, such as the Change at the Core project that engaged faculty with student-centered teaching and learning and the Advancing Excellence and Equity in Science project that connected minorities, women, and first-generation students with resources for academic and career success. The funding directly impacts graduate education through new graduate students who did their undergraduate degrees at Western.
In Western’s computer science master’s program, students are breaking the mold by making computer science their own despite the statistics. In the process, they’re writing a new story—one that says, “Computer science is for everyone.”
Finding a home in computer science
Computer science wasn’t on Piper Wolters’ radar when she entered WWU as an undergraduate—she was interested in mathematics. But as a student in the CS/M Scholars Program, an NSF-funded program that aims to prepare undergraduates for careers in math and computer science, she was encouraged by her mentors to give it a try.
For Wolters, the rest was history. “I fell in love with computer science,” she said. “My time after that was largely spent in the labs, staying up for many hours of the night problem solving, wrestling with code, and struggling through study sessions and difficult assignments with the tight-knit computer science community.”
In the homogenous world of computer science, CS/M Scholars provides support specifically for women, underrepresented minorities, and first-generation college students. By way of scholarships and mentoring experiences, the program promotes inclusive academic and professional success for burgeoning computer scientists.
The support was empowering for Wolters. Although she was the only woman in her senior project series, she said she felt welcomed in that space. And by the time she wrapped up her senior year, Wolters had decided that computer science was the place for her—and that she’d continue her journey at Western Washington University as a master’s student.
Wolters was lucky to have been exposed to computer science early in her undergraduate career. But other students often don’t encounter computer science (or learn about the myriad career opportunities available in the field) until much later.
Such was the case for Richard Li of Bellevue, Washington, who was three years into a biology program at UW when he began to wonder if a pre-med track was really for him. “My parents sort of pushed me towards being a doctor,” Li said. “It’s a great career and very stable. But I was really questioning it.”
When Li learned in one of his classes that machine learning models were being used for medical diagnostic procedures, his interest was piqued, and he enrolled in a computer science course during his final quarter as an undergrad.
He found the work enjoyable and exciting and could see himself in the field—but this put him at a difficult crossroads: Should he continue down a medical path or start all over again in computer science?
Li chose computer science—but luckily, he didn’t have to start from scratch. Western’s Master’s Program in Computer Science accepts students from non-CS backgrounds. “That makes us different from other programs,” says Dr. Yudong Liu, the program’s advisor. Moreover, Liu emphasizes that many applicants without heavy CS backgrounds, like Li, go on to be very successful at the master’s level.
At first, the career switch to computer science was difficult for Li, and it took time to recalibrate. But he looks back on his master’s program as the best thing that has ever happened to him: It was great preparation for a career in CS and had a strong impact on his professional prospects.
Exciting research, unmatched support
Computer science graduate students at Western don’t just learn skills to be used on the job at some point in the future—they tackle a huge variety of real-world problems from the get-go.
When Wolters began her graduate studies, for example, she immediately immersed herself in projects that used computer science to tackle problems in areas ranging from climate science to archeology.
“Thanks to my wonderful research advisor, Dr. Brian Hutchinson, I joined a research project that was in collaboration with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory,” Wolters said. “On this project, I explored Few-Shot Learning, audio event classification and detection, climate data emulation using generative networks, and detection of ancient civilizations from aerial LiDAR data.”
Li also explored a range of computer science-related fields while studying at Western, including natural language processing, under his advisor Yudong Liu, and graphics.
From Dr. Liu’s perspective, the range of opportunities available to Western students for work on machine learning projects is an enormous asset because machine learning currently plays such an important role across computer science disciplines. And, she notes, some faculty have interdisciplinary projects with the physics, geology, engineering, and environmental sciences departments.
As a graduate student, Wolters’s research position with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory supported her with a full tuition waiver and stipend, allowing her to focus on her studies without the worry of student debt or taking on another job to pay for school. Other CS grad students are frequently awarded teaching assistantships to fund their education.
Across campus, a personalized education is at the core of the Western graduate student experience, and the computer science program is a case in point: “Class sizes were super small, wonderful, intimate, and diverse,” Li says.
There are options for support outside the classroom, too: Li took advantage of the CS Mentoring Program, which offered daily sessions for undergrads and grad students alike to collaborate and discuss coursework and career paths.
Western’s collaborative learning environment and exceptional support from professors and mentors often lead to publications and other accolades. During Wolters’s time in the program, for example, she had a paper accepted to the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing and was the fourth author on a climate workshop presentation put on by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I am extremely grateful to have had unbelievably supportive and intelligent professors that led me to understanding content, conducting meaningful research, and forming my dreams,” Wolters said.
Exciting research spanning a range of fields and personalized support made Western the right place for both Li and Wolters to pursue their graduate education. But Li would add another pro to the list: Bellingham’s outstanding livability.
“Bellingham has a lot of energy that I really like. I like how compact everything is: You can drive ten minutes and get anywhere you need,” he says. For Li, great access to the outdoors, sunset views from Boulevard Park, and strolling around historic Fairhaven all make Bellingham not just a place to study for a few years, but an invigorating place to live.
Post-graduation paths: The sky’s the limit
For a wealth of abundant, exciting, and diverse career options, Wolters and Li would say it’s hard to do better than a master’s degree in computer science at Western.
Although he briefly considered getting his PhD, Li ultimately decided to pursue an industry job. He started at Expedia shortly after he graduated from the master's program. As a backend software engineer there, he works to develop, maintain, and improve backend web services for the car rental division, ensuring all travelers have a smooth and pleasant experience on their journeys—which, he says, his time at Western prepared him well for.
It’s a job that suits Li well, thanks to its excellent work culture. And because of the great work-life balance it allows, Li has plenty of time to hike, ski, bird watch, and meet up with friends—that is, when he’s not traveling and working from one of Expedia’s global campuses, which he is allowed to do for several weeks out of each year.
Li says, “My career allows me to combine both my love of technology and travel, to help people get out of their small bubbles and experience the rest of the world. Travel changes people. It helps people develop confidence, makes them more open to diversity, more tolerant and accepting, and more curious. Travel is the ultimate form of education, there’s no better way to learn about the world, to learn about humanity, or to learn about life than to go around the world and experience different places, cultures and perspectives firsthand. I'm so lucky to be part of an organization that knows firsthand the importance of using technology to power global travel.”
Li’s next move? Finding and buying a house, then getting a cat.
For Wolter’s part, she started at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence shortly before she graduated. As a research engineer there, she works to solve problems related to marine mammal conservation, using her background in deep learning to help save whales in the Pacific Northwest. “I am trying to localize unique dolphin whistles in audio recording from hydrophones, detect illegal or unreported fishing vessels using a combination of AIS and satellite imagery, and automating marine soundscape identifications to understand what noises are detrimental to our Puget Sound resident orcas,” Wolters says.
She’s also now an instructor in WWU’s Department of Computer Science.
Like Li, who once agonized over a decision about his future, Wolters has come a long way, from uncovering a passion for computer science as an undergrad to becoming a computer scientist with a promising career. And now, she’s come full circle, frequently speaking in classrooms across the country to share her story and to encourage women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ individuals to consider careers in computer science.
The encouragement and enthusiasm Wolters received from her mentors at Western—which made her feel that she’d found a home in computer science—continues to shape her ideas about her future. “Someday, I hope to return to school to work towards a PhD and full professor position,” she says. “Professors in the computer science department at Western have inspired, supported, and challenged me, and I would love to have a similar impact on students.”