Pooja’s a senior at Harvard, and a fierce fighter for closing the gender gap in CS. As a high school sophomore, she started ProjectCSGIRLS, the nation’s largest computer science competition for middle school girls. We’re truly inspired by her dedication to and vision for her nonprofit, as well as for women in tech. Here’s her story.
What inspired you to create ProjectCSGIRLS?
POOJA: So, I started ProjectCSGIRLS my sophomore year of high school as a result of my own experiences with the tech gender gap. I found myself one of only three girls in my first high school computer science class, and also noticed many of my female friends stopped pursuing CS because they felt out of place and discouraged by the gender ratio in their classes. I credit much of my own decision to stay in CS to my prior experience with the subject in middle school, so that’s why I wanted to create a national platform to encourage middle school girls to pursue CS and tech.
A common criticism of programs like Girls Who Code and Robogals seems to be that creating programs exclusively for girls is discriminatory and ineffective. James Damore, the former Google employee that circulated the divisive memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, commented that such programs “continue the ‘women are victims’ narrative, which can be harmful for everyone”. How would you respond to these criticisms?
POOJA: Those criticisms are entirely invalid; in order to address issues of discrimination and underrepresentation, it is necessary to create spaces and programs that foster empowerment, support, and peer mentorship. One of the biggest impacts of the tech gender gap is that girls and women often feel isolated and unsupported; thus, we have to create programs that show girls that they aren’t alone in their endeavors and that there’s a strong community of women in tech who will back and support them. The goal of female-only and/or minority-only programs isn’t to be discriminatory, but rather to build community and channel resources to those communities that need them the most.
You took on this endeavor as a high school sophomore! Did it ever seem daunting to you or were there moments when it seemed like things wouldn’t work out?
POOJA: Yeah absolutely! The first year of ProjectCSGIRLS was only for girls in Virginia, Maryland, and DC so it was just a regional program! We worked our way up from there to a national, and now international, program. And there were lots of challenges along the way; from securing funding from corporate sponsors to getting the word out on a national scale, there were a lot of steps along the way that I had to take one at a time while building the organization and scaling our programs!
What are some cool projects you’ve seen submitted to ProjectCSGIRLS so far?
POOJA: There have been so many! A few include an app to help Alzheimer’s patients recognize their loved one through facial recognition, a machine learning-based algorithm to translate the movements of wounded veterans’ lips to words, and a VR system to help claustrophobic individuals get acclimated to an MRI environment before they undergo an actual scan.
You’ve engaged in many public speaking events and presentations to executives and large-scale conferences – was it intimidating? How’d you calm your nerves?
POOJA: For me, it just came with practice! I was definitely not accustomed to public speaking before my work with ProjectCSGIRLS, but as I began to speak at more events, it began to come much more naturally and I started to really love it. Now, it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do! I’ve found that the best way to calm your nerves is to speak with passion. If you do, you’re much more focused on the content rather than the delivery and setting!
What made you become interested in computer science?
POOJA: My parents are both engineers, so I’ve always had a natural inclination towards technology and computer science. I also went to a middle school with mandatory computer science classes, and I was immediately drawn to how logical and creative of a field it was. But, I really became interested in pursuing computer science and tech as a long-term path when I realized how much of an impact these fields were having on healthcare and medicine.
You’re a Biomedical Engineering major – what technological potentials draw you to this field?
POOJA: There’s so much potential for digital health to really transform the way we treat patients and diagnose diseases, and the system that’s responsible for delivering this care. Some examples of technologies I’ve particularly been interested in and have worked on are better ways to diagnose concussions with noninvasive technologies, mining social media data to predict health crises before they occur, and how virtual reality can be used to help children with special needs. I’m also really interested in how we can harness technology to improve how health systems function (i.e. how can data and analytics help us improve care quality, reduce costs of care, and improve care coordination).
You’re a senior at Harvard! What are your plans for after graduation?
POOJA: So I’m taking a gap year before medical school! I’m not sure yet exactly what I’m going to be doing, but I’m hoping it’ll involve a combination of digital health, education, and public service!
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
POOJA: Working at the intersection of healthcare, technology, and policy! I’d really like to be in a position where I’m harnessing technology to improve our healthcare system, as well as identify and reduce health disparities. Also, I hope to continue working on reducing education inequities through advocacy and nonprofit work.
Any words of advice for aspiring STEMGirls?
POOJA: Stay with it, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help/mentorship, and take the initiative! Don’t be discouraged by the statistics, and ensure that you speak out, step up, and take the lead in projects or internships. And look for mentors! Seek out mentors – both male and female – who will advocate for you, support your aspirations, and encourage you to reach higher!