Ph.D. Women Take Women@SCS to the Next Level

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At the recent OurCS event on campus, undergraduate women from across the country had the chance to gather and learn more about CS research and opportunities beyond their undergrad studies from SCS graduate students.

The School of Computer Science's Ph.D. women are hard at work bringing new and exciting opportunities to Carnegie Mellon's Women @ SCS program. Directed by Carol Frieze, Women @ SCS creates and supports academic, social and professional opportunities for women in computer science. The program includes a wide range of women including undergraduate, master's and Ph.D. students — as well as faculty.

While Women @ SCS aims to promote a healthy and supportive community for all computer science students, the organization has renewed its efforts to tackle the obstacles graduate women face through mentoring, outreach and career-focused programs. The graduate programs in Women @ SCS not only facilitate relationships between Ph.D. students who may not interact with each other as frequently as undergraduates, but also help establish and foster an uplifting community for women to learn, grow and achieve as leaders in the field.

The Ph.D. Sisters Mentoring Program, led by fourth-year computer science Ph.D. student Hannah Gommerstadt, matches Ph.D. women in their first and second years of study with senior Ph.D. women to foster long-term mentoring relationships in the Ph.D. community. While undergrads interact more frequently with each other during their time at CMU, grad students — especially Ph.D. students — are more distributed across the college and have fewer opportunities to meet outside of their respective departments.

"It's important to build a mentoring community that keeps Ph.D. women interested while still being flexible with their diverse lifestyles, as older students are more likely to sequester themselves," Gommerstadt said. "I definitely think having female mentors helps. Looking back now, had I seen female graduate students in my early academic career, I would have considered grad school as a career option much faster."

Women @ SCS also builds a community through monthly professional and social events. Whether through panel discussions with post-docs and faculty to provide useful career advice for grad students, or more casual wine and cheese nights, the program allows women to share the experience of being a graduate student in computer science.

Ph.D. women in Women @ SCS also participate in outreach and volunteer work. One of the most successful outreach programs is TechNights, a volunteer opportunity for grad and undergrad students, faculty and even non-CMU affiliates to give weekly tech workshops for middle school girls. Robotics Institute Ph.D. student Ada Zhang has led TechNights for five years.

"We also try to branch out of computer science," Zhang said. "I've done workshops on math subjects like game theory, origami, biology and mechanical engineering. We once taught them how to design parts in SolidWorks and showed them their designs on the laser cutter in Hunt Library."

They also share their experiences with undergraduate women in computer science. Graduate women play an important role in running a panel during OurCS, a research-oriented conference CMU annual hosts for undergraduate women in computer science. At OurCS, they introduce undergraduates to research opportunities and provide them with advice on the graduate application process — all while fostering a community of women potentially pursuing computer science research beyond their undergraduate experience.

Other significant outcomes of Women @ SCS's renewed emphasis on graduate students are increased dialogue about and awareness of the obstacles women face, particularly in the graduate world. "Graduate women, and especially Ph.D. women, worry more about the balance of work and life than men." Gommerstadt said. "One of the issues is figuring out where you fit on the spectrum as an academic."

"I didn't come from a background where there was really a gender disparity," Zhang said. "But once I came here and noticed it, I internalized the issue. Through Women @ SCS, it's become easier to verbalize the problems for women in computer science, why they're happening and where they're coming from."

But even with an increased emphasis on cultivating an academic environment where women students can thrive, Women @ SCS still has work to do.

"Knowing that the challenges I face are systemic helps me deal with them better," said Nicole Rafidi, a Ph.D. student in the machine learning and neural computation programs, and a workshop leader for TechNights. "By creating opportunities for women in computer science to speak frankly to one another in a safe environment, Women @ SCS helps us feel a sense of community. This gives us the strength to take on more challenges in the wider CS community."

Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice@cs.cmu.edu