MIT CS-visit-day Jan. 16, 2015

Highlights from Q&A panel

(read the full Q&A transcript)

Did you always know you wanted to be a computer scientist?

Jean: I didn’t always know I wanted to be a computer scientist. But in college what happened is that I took a bunch of computer science classes, I fell asleep in a lot of my other classes, and I really liked my computer science homework… and that’s how I ended up here.

Mike: In undergrad I was a math major, but I was taking CS courses and really not liking them. But it wasn’t until I did a bunch of random internships during my undergrad - that’s how I ended up doing research in computer science - there are other ways to get into computer science other than doing classwork.

What did you end up doing that you never thought you’d be doing as a computer scientist?

Sabrina: My undergrad degree was in electrical engineering, so I thought I was only going to be messing with circuits and electricity, and never doing any programming. So it’s interesting, actually, that I’ve gravitated under the umbrella of computer science. I guess it’s unexpected how diverse the field can be and what you do in it.

Jon: We spend a lot of time just researching possible solutions for the problem at hand, and surprisingly little really sitting down and actually writing code.

Jean: You spend a lot of the days talking to other people, giving talks, listening to talks. And we also spend a lot of time traveling, which is surprising to me. So, one thing is - if you’re a programmer or computer scientist, you don’t need to be in the lab or any sort of place, and so you spend a lot of time flying around, meeting collaborators, going to conferences. So there’s a lot more adventure than I thought…

Valentina: And you do a lot of activity that’s not apparently related to computer science. For example, my first project involved going to archeological sites to scan fragments that they discovered, and so I spent a month in a remote island in Greece, scanning and working with archaeologists, and that was a very unexpected part of my professional life.

What would you wish to have known in high school about computer science?

Jon: That it’s such a big field. Just take the panel here: we’re all doing very different things within computer science and I don’t think I could do whatever any of these other people do. I’m good at my field, but they do completely different things, and it’s still considered computer science. And that’s sort of the fascinating thing - that you can go into this field, and you can work on whatever you’re interested in, and there’ll be some part of that - that ties into computer science, and you can do both.

Zoya: Yeah, I think the fields are very different; so if you want to go into biology, or chemistry, or physics, or art, or psychology, you can do it all through computer science and a computer’s there to help you - it’s your buddy, it’s a toolset, it’s something that helps you do what you want - and what you want to do can be anything.

Do you feel that you end up being social here, at MIT, as a computer scientist?

Andrea: I really thought, before I did any of the research, that research was some very bright people sitting in a room by themselves, thinking about very hard problems; and doing it I realized that it’s a lot about understanding where the community is and where it’s going. And the best ideas... you have them while talking to people, bouncing ideas off each other. So my work is very social in that sense, for sure.

What opportunities do you have as a computer scientist that you don’t think you would have otherwise?

Jon: So I think one advantage you have as a computer scientist is that everything is becoming digital. Every single field is now using computers for one thing or another, and so having the skills that you form as a computer scientist - be it just programming, or working with computers, or working with any kind of digital system - gives you a lot of experience - even in other fields you don’t have any other familiarity with. So it might be easier for you to get into almost any kind of position, simply based on that knowledge.

Is there anything specific that you’ve retained from high-school that’s been significant?

Mike: If there’s one skill that’s really important to learn early and then do it - it’s writing. So even as a computer scientist, you think that my job is all about programming and doing all kinds of analysis. But at the end of the day, you still need to be able to explain what you did to a large audience, and the easiest way to do this is to communicate well through writing. So definitely it’s important to do programming, and math, and all that other stuff in high school… but if there’s one skill that’s going to stick with you no matter what field you go into, it’s good writing.

Sabrina: Yeah, that’s actually super critical in research or inventing anything. If you make something but you can’t describe to people what you did, it’s useless.

Jon: I think being able to obtain knowledge is important - like being able to seek out new information that you need for some report you’re writing or whatnot. It’s important to have that skill of being able to do research on your own. Even at smaller scales, even just like knowing how to look up wikipedia, and look beyond the text that’s there, and follow the references at the bottom, and read other things that other people have written, and then come up with a better answer - that’s probably what we do every day.

Josh: And the one thing I wish I had known in high school but didn’t get until later is that knowledge is still being constructed - that it’s not what’s in a book that’s “the word”. You know, we’re still learning computer science: there’s stuff that’s happening in the forefront here every single day; and we have to figure out what’s good in it, what’s not good, and make analyses of that.

Sabrina: In high school you’re still learning what we do know. You haven’t gotten to the point where you know all of the things people already know. They’re teaching you those things. But because you’re learning things people already know, you don’t realize that we’re not there at all. There’s so much that we don’t understand, there’s so much that we need to understand. So, get excited: there’s stuff to do-- it’s not all done.

Did you like computer science in high school?

Zoya: The way that we were taught computer science in high school, I didn’t think that what we were doing was very interesting. Some computer science classes teach you, for instance, how to make video games, and for some people that’s going to be super exciting, but for other people it won’t be exciting. It’s very difficult to design a computer science course in high school that everyone’s going to like, because you have to start somewhere, you have to build something - and then half the people aren’t going to like what you’re doing, and so half the people are going to think that they hate computer science. But then there’s all these other things that you could build with computer science - which is why I’m saying, if you don’t like it now, give it a second try, third try - maybe the second or third time, they will actually build what you care about. Or if they don’t, then go on the internet and in one day build an app for your phone, or something, and build what you want on your own - you don’t even need teachers for that, you don’t need anyone for that. That’s what’s great about computer science.

Josh: I started programming on my own, with my best friend down the street, with a thing that you guys don’t even recognize as a computer. But we got to know what a computer could do, and then I went to this computer science class, and I was like “come on, we can do far more than this - and why are we wasting our time”. And I think that’s the thing to remember: that you can build the things that matter with computers, and that’s the really key part. You can build something that matters to you, to your community, to your world. And don’t let some computer science class drive that out of you.

Andrea: That was also for me one of the moral dilemmas that I faced when I decided to become a computer scientist - like I can’t do anything useful with this thing. All I’m going to do is build computer games - which are awesome - but there are more important, moral things that I can do if I was a doctor, or something like that. And I later found out that that’s not true. Like computer science is everywhere: some of the best diagnostic procedures that we have today - especially, early diagnostics - are based on computer science. We can integrate data, health-related data from a lot of places, and we can try to find a cure. So there’s a lot of things that you can do and also help the world, if that’s your call.

How long is the process of becoming a computer scientist?

Andrea: It can take as long as you want, and it’s also, I believe, never too late. If you’re at the end of high school and you never touched a programming language before, even if it’s after college, there’s plenty of people that are extremely successful doing computer science jobs that take online courses after college. So I think it’s one of the few things where it’s never too late to learn the trade.

Zoya: And it’s the fastest thing to learn too. So, if you take chemistry or biology or physics, you actually need to sit down with a textbook, and understand the fundamentals before you do anything else - but with computer science, you pick up one tutorial, and you already understand a bunch. Without having any other prior knowledge, you can already build something that a computer scientist can build. You can’t become a biologist in a day. You can start to think like a computer scientist in a day.

What would be a good way to start getting a foothold in computer science?

Benji: Even if you’re still in high school or somewhere in between, it’s all about like what we said earlier - getting social. So find a group of people - and share what you’re interested in. For example, if you’re interested in video games, grab a couple of other people interested in video games and make a little game. And it’s about getting social, it’s about asking people when you don’t have the answers, or looking it up. I really encourage you to find a few friends and do it - because if you try it alone and you get stuck, then you might want to give up. If you’re with a group, the group kind of sees it through, and there’s a lot of web resources and the internet is powerful - so yes, do something.

Jean: Yeah there are more resources out there than ever before for learning to code - like the CodeAcademy. And pretty much if you want to do something, you search online for “how do I do X” and people would have written about it.

Andrea: Get started on something you’re passionate about - like even a small game, or a small website about your favorite game, or something like that, and you’ll get hooked and feel how amazing it is to create something in that box, that’s happening and doing things. I think another thing that is - at least it was important to me, when I was starting programming - was to show off what I did. I would tell my friends “look how cool this program is - I did this”. I think it’s really important to feel proud of what you did, no matter how small it is.