ProjectCSGIRLS: Pooja Chandrashekar

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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!

 

 

 

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Maya Frai: Myoutlines

Maya’s an undergraduate at Cornell – she developed an iOS app, Myoutlines, that provides AP students with outlines to help them study. Here’s her journey.

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In high school, the best study strategy to handle my overwhelming course load was to outline chapters in AP textbooks for all of my classes. Whether it was for biology or history, summarizing concepts in my own words was the easiest way to consolidate dense information. As I started to accumulate more and more outlines on my hard drive, friends started asking me if they could use my outlines to review topics for exams and essays. I welcomed the idea and started to share them. Frustrated with having to use multiple platforms to share my outlines— from Facebook to Google Drive to email — I decided to make a website. I initially created the site for my local high school, but soon after I created it, high school students from all over the world started to view and download my study guides. As of today, myoutlines.com has over 300K users and subscribers and is #1 Google page-ranked for search keyword “AP outlines.” But, it doesn’t stop there.

Reviewing the website’s analytics over time, I noticed that a large number of users were accessing the site through their mobile phone. I realized making an app would be beneficial, however, I didn’t know the first thing about app development. When I first arrived at Cornell, I enrolled in an iOS development course and began designing and developing the Myoutlines app. Throughout the course, it was not easy to keep up with the advanced instructors explaining UI components like it was 3rd grade arithmetic. And not only was the material difficult to grasp, the room full of male developers didn’t help my overall morale much. In the beginning, I questioned whether I should be in the room, learning amongst those who were already enrolled in higher-level computer science courses. But throughout the semester, I focused on the main thing that was important to me, the driving force that motivated me to take the course in the first place. Even when I would find myself being scoffed at or “brogrammer’d at” (I made that up) for asking a “silly” question during office hours, I wouldn’t even pay them a glance. My goal was to build an app not only for myself, but also for my users.

After constant visits to office hours and weekly projects, I finally mastered the skills I needed to start developing my own app. But of course, the challenge didn’t end when the course did. Designing and developing the app came with its own many frustrations. Not only was I a newbie at Swift, but also in UX design. The time that I was not working in XCode, I was designing in Sketch. While ensuring a minimalistic design, I was also conducting UX research to meet the many design guidelines for education apps. While trying to meet my initial design expectations, I struggled with compiler errors of all kind. I’m not going to lie and say that I always knew what I was doing–because I didn’t. I struggled with nitty-gritty errors as well as large-scale server issues that once led me to believe that my entire project was gone. But, thanks to the open source community as well as my instructors, iOS development resources and libraries, my app was continuously improving.

When developing and designing the app, I not only learned how to work on my skills and become a better programmer, but I also discovered that no one can get in the way of something you set your mind to. At Cornell, I am constantly in contact with male peers who undermine my abilities and misjudge me based on my gender. But this is something that all women can help improve. As one of the vice presidents of Women in Computing at Cornell, I work with an incredibly talented and powerful group of women that strive everyday to reduce the gender gap and advocate for every woman aspiring to pursue a career in technology, whether it be through product design, software engineering, or product management. For any woman trying to make their first app, develop a website, or even take their first computer science class, I strongly encourage you to keep moving forward, regardless of anyone or anything that is working against you. To make a change, we all have to contribute something and we are all capable of being a part of that change. Not only am I proud to say that I released Myoutlines on the App Store, but I am also humbled to be the one able to further my passion project and contribute something to the women in technology community.

Sheryl Sandberg & the Youtube Comments Section

 

There’s a famous Harvard Business School study on a woman named Heidi Roizen. And she’s an operator in a company in Silicon Valley, and she uses her contacts to become a very successful venture capitalist. In 2002 — not so long ago — a professor who was then at Columbia University took that case and made it [Howard] Roizen. And he gave the case out, both of them, to two groups of students. He changed exactly one word: “Heidi” to “Howard.” But that one word made a really big difference. He then surveyed the students, and the good news was the students, both men and women, thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, and that’s good. The bad news was that everyone liked Howard. He’s a great guy. You want to work for him. You want to spend the day fishing with him. But Heidi? Not so sure. She’s a little out for herself. She’s a little political. You’re not sure you’d want to work for her.”

– Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

Inspired, supercharged with hope,
Only to discover that I could not cope
With the senseless comments galore:

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Great comment, but in reality,
I present a counterexample seriously,
I am a woman with neither preference,
Therefore, your statement is an invalid inference. \square

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A woman who received highest distinction from Harvard,
Consultant at McKinsey,
Worked for the U.S. Secretary of Treasury,
Served as VP of global online sales at Google additionally.
So how can women gain inspiration
From this extraordinarily unaccomplished figure?
What an accommodation,
To natural behavior quite the perturbation,
For men to wash more dishes,
aXe m, why don’t we listen instead to your wishes?

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Dear Atlas,
Please brush up on your history,
Especially Curie, Herschel and Goodall sincerely,
Burnell, Rosalind and a sprinkle of Meitner.
Lovelace, McClintock and Hopper,
I could go on and on, for women continued to seek science,
In the face of vast societal and economic bias.

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“I think we can do well without the Thirteenth Amendment”,
“I think we can do well without Independence”,
“Up to this point the majority of childbirths have been from women,
So I don’t see why women should hand over parenthood to men.”
Quite the misnomer, don’t you see,
To view the status quo as complete,
To not embrace the promise of progress,
And instead, regress.

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I see that you are a time traveller in disguise,
Unable to shed your 18th century guise.
Let me lend you a hand,
It is imperative to understand
That there exist no such natural roles,
And history will always look unkindly upon those souls
Who stand on the side of such oppressive absurdity.

 

5 Websites To Learn How to Code

“I literally coded Facebook in my dorm room and launched it from my dorm room. I rented a server for $85 a month, and I funded it by putting an ad on the side, and we’ve funded ever since by putting ads on the side.”
-Mark Zuckerberg

Often times, the most successful coders started out on their own – learning the basics of coding through the ever-resourceful Internet.

All right, be honest. Have you ever dreamed of creating the next best-selling app, designing a gorgeous blog to showcase your artwork, or creating the next Candy Crush/ Flappy Bird? Of course you’ve all had brilliant moments of creative inspiration for such things, so what’s stopping you? Learn to code your dreams!

Here are some of the best of the Web to get you started; I promise to you this is not “way over your head”. Put in some time and effort and you’ll be amazed at what you’re capable of.

1. Codeacademy
This interactive website offers guided, easy to understand tutorials on some of the most essential computer languages out there : Python, HTML, Ruby, and more. I’ve actually learned web design through this website.

2. EdX
EdX by MIT is an open-source platform offering courses from universities around the world like MIT and Harvard. In other words, you can take a college course on almost anything from the comfort of your home, taught by the world’s best of the best! Here are some picks for coding:
Harvard’s Intro to Computer Science
Microsoft’s Programming with C#
MIT’s Intro to Computer Science and Programming Using Python

3. Code School
“We combine gaming mechanics with video instruction and in-browser coding challenges that make learning both educational and memorable. With more than 40 courses covering JavaScript, HTML/CSS, Ruby, Git, and iOS, Code School pairs experienced instructors with meticulously produced, high-quality content inspired by our community and network of members.”
This resource offers several “language paths” to go through including iOS development (go build your app huh?), as well as screencasts to build up your skills.

4. Coursera
Yes, this is similar to MIT’s EdX, providing free courses on various topics from universities around the world. A few selected picks:
University of Maryland, College Park & Vanderbilt University’s
“Mobile Cloud Computing with Android”

University of Colorado’s Beginning Game Programming with C#

5. W3Schools
Great starter to learning web design essentials. If you’ve ever wanted to design your own blog or website, go forth!

There are tons of resources out there to begin learning anything from web design to game programming to Bioinformatics. I encourage you to go explore and make something! Bring to life your wildest imaginations!

Please do comment any suggestions for other websites or your own experiences learning coding!
Yours truly,

STEMGirl.