Class of 2017 Computer Scientists Close Gender Gap

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Angela Yang (C'17) shakes hands with University President John J. DeGioia at the 2017 College Commencement ceremony.
Angela Yang (C’17) shakes hands with University President John J. DeGioia at the 2017 College Commencement ceremony. Yang is one of the three women to finish at the top of the computer science program this year. (Photo: Kuna Malik Hamad/Georgetown College)

May 30, 2017 — The top computer science majors in the Class of 2017 all came from different backgrounds, had different interests, and called different parts of the country home. But they shared one thing that made them part of a groundbreaking graduating class:

They’re all women.

Angela Yang, Zoe Park, and Emma Hussain (all C’17) graduated as the only students in the computer science program to record GPAs above the 3.9 mark. Along with Julia Hockett — who won the Computer Science Award at the Tropaia ceremony — they embody Georgetown’s longstanding mission to empower women in the sciences.

Originally from the Netherlands, Emma Hussain’s family moved to Omaha, Neb. when she was 11 years old. She learned about Georgetown through a relative and visited while in high school and quickly determined that the Hilltop was the right fit.

Hussain originally planned on studying either biology or English. But an elective introductory computer science class her sophomore fall sent her down a new path, and she eventually fell in love with the subject.

“It was always something I was interested in, but I thought it might be too late to start because I hadn’t done it in high school,” she said. “But I took it, ended up really liking it, and declared as a major soon after that.”

Classes like Prof. Micah Sherr’s Network Security brought a deeper understanding of topics both commonplace and of national importance.

“We learned about methods of defending against network attacks,” Hussain said. “I found it very interesting, getting to understand the challenges of defending, as the attacker only needs to find a single vulnerability.”

Angela Yang faced similar uncertainty. In search of a high-quality private education sufficiently far from home, the San Diego native found Georgetown at her mother’s recommendation. She knew the Hilltop would be her home soon after stepping on campus during GAAP weekend, and before long she was a first-year set on majoring in linguistics. But in the process of exploring her chosen field, she discovered the study of computational linguistics.

“I always knew I liked math and hard science, but I didn’t think that was something I wanted to do. I was more interested in the humanities and social sciences,” Yang said. “I had never thought I was a computer person, and that class really opened my eyes.”

Yang decided to add a computer science major to her linguistics program. As a junior, she enjoyed the Big Data Analytics course so much that she asked to stay on with Prof. Grace Hui Yang as a research assistant. Her research on dynamic search engines became an integral part of her academic life as a junior and senior, and she’s submitted her thesis to academic conferences. After graduation, Yang will be taking her talents to Seattle to work in demand forecasting at Amazon.

“Everyone assumes I’ve been coding since I was a kid, and that computer science has been my dream,” Yang said. “People think, ‘I can’t do computer science because I didn’t grow up doing it,’ and they should know you can really start anytime.”

Unlike Yang and Hussain, Zoe Park had exposure to computer science prior to her arrival on the Hilltop. A soccer player from Bethesda, Md., she had taken computer science classes in high school and based her college search partially on the availability of a computer science major. Among the schools that recruited her for soccer, Georgetown stood out.

“I didn’t really think about it at the time — I kind of figured if the computer science thing didn’t work out, I could do anything I wanted here — but the department ended up being a really nice fit,” Park said.

The computer science thing did work out, of course. When she wasn’t busy with practice, Park excelled in class and eventually began researching the use of graph mining to study the dynamics of cultured hippocampal neurons with Prof. Lisa Singh. The best classes, according to Park, allowed her to actually create something using the tools she had learned.

“I like classes where you have something to show for it at the end,” Park said. “In Advanced Programming, we made a version of the game Snake — that was really cool to show people.”

To a person, the three women at the top of the computer science Class of 2017 praised their faculty for fostering a sense of community in the small program.

“You can talk to professors, and really get to know everyone well,” said Park, who is slated to begin work as a software engineer at Appian, a Reston-based software firm, later this year.

“The community here is really unique in that everyone’s really talented and really smart, but not cutthroat competitive,” added Yang. “People will work together and help you out — they want you to succeed with them.”

As for the disproportionate gender numbers in their field, Hussain, Yang, and Park all know it’s there. But Georgetown’s computer science program is moving rapidly toward a real gender balance — in part due to the efforts of organizations like GU Women Who Code — and women like this year’s graduating seniors are helping blaze the trail.

“If anyone has interest, they shouldn’t be put off just because it’s a male-dominated field,” Yang said.

— Patrick Curran