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[February 22, 2014]
San Jose Mercury News Mike Cassidy column [San Jose Mercury News :: ]
(San Jose Mercury News (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 22--No one has asked Amy Nguyen if she'd like to be the celebrity spokeswoman for the forces working to debunk the notion that computer science is a dull pursuit for nerdy guys. But she'd be a terrific one.
When I first talked to the Stanford University computer science student over the summer, she was working at an internship for the company that helped bring us "Gravity," "Thor: The Dark World" and "Grand Theft Auto V." Oh yeah, and she was working in Paris. Yeah, France.
"I get to write cool code and be in France," says Nguyen, 20, whose summer job was analyzing social network data for Technicolor in Paris.
She was loving life -- and who wouldn't be? -- and loving computer science. But the funny thing is that she almost didn't start studying the subject at all.
"I came to Stanford planning to do bioengineering," she says. "I wanted to do medical research." But she had an open slot winter quarter of freshman year. She remembered that a first-quarter professor had mentioned that biology was becoming increasingly computational. As computer systems become more sophisticated and as more and more data is collected on everything from single cells to entire human systems, researchers are using computer modeling to understand how living things function. So, she figured, what the heck? Why not computer science? "I came away from that class in love," Nguyen says. She loved that computer science let you build things. Sure, the original introductory assignment might be to create a hangman game, but why not do more? Why not add a dictionary to the game? "Nobody is stopping you," says Nguyen, who is from Hawthorne. "You can just add whatever you want." Nguyen is an outlier when it comes to women and computer science. Nationally, only 17.6 percent of CS degrees go to women. Surveys of girls and women find that many believe that computing is a solitary pursuit that means long days and nights sitting at a computer and coding for coding's sake. Those working to pump up the number of women in computing promote the message that that stereotype is simply not so.
Computer scientists work on big problems, like global warming and cancer research, they say. They work on fun projects, like movies and videogames. And they often work in teams.
Nguyen has not only become convinced of all that, she has become an evangelist for that view. She says she plans to study computer science in graduate school and then find a job -- maybe in education or with a nonprofit -- that will allow her to make a positive difference in the world.
"What would have happened if I didn't take that CS class by chance?" Nguyen asks before we sign off of our Skype conversation. "This is really an incredible field to be in and there are so many women, and men as well; there are just so many people who don't study it for the wrong reasons." Nguyen feels lucky to have avoided that trap.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-859-5325. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
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