PhD students Elena Glassman '08, MNG '10, Neha Narula SM '10, and Jean Yang SM '10 (left) and Hobby Shop lecturer Brian Chan '02, SM '04, PhD '09 (right) recently participated in "Ask Me Anything" conversations. Images: imugr.com, MIT Alumni Association
PhD students Elena Glassman ’08, MNG ’10, Neha Narula SM ’10, and Jean Yang SM ’10 (left) and Hobby Shop lecturer Brian Chan ’02, SM ’04, PhD ’09 (right) recently participated in “Ask Me Anything” conversations. Images: imugr.com, MIT Alumni Association

In recent days, the popular content-sharing website Reddit played host to two lively MIT-related “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) conversations.

On December 12, Elena Glassman ’08, MNG ’10, Neha Narula SM ’10, and Jean Yang SM ’10 —all PhD students at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL)— fielded questions about their experiences as female computer scientists and why they love programming. The trio organized their event as part of Computer Science Education Week.

And on December 16, in an AMA coordinated by the MIT Alumni Association, MIT Hobby Shop lecturer and self-described “Maker of Anything” Brian Chan ’02, SM ’04, PhD ’09 shared tips gleaned from his 20-plus years as an expert craftsperson and origami artist.

Following are a few highlights from each AMA:

  • Narula on gender-specific resources for young girls interested in learning to code:

    “First of all, you should try everything! But I personally have found groups like Pyladies awesome because they specifically focus on mentorship, and I bet if there’s one in your area they would love to help your 11-year-old daughter. Face-to-face learning in a warm environment can help someone stay committed.”

  • Yang and Narula, on whether female computer scientists are treated differently than their male counterparts:

    YANG: “Yes. Especially when I was younger, I noticed that people did not expect me to know very much. While some of my male friends could walk into a room and have people listen to their technical ideas by default, I had to do some amount of proving myself. Now that I have more credentials it’s become easier.

    “An advantage of being one of the very few women in a male-dominated field is that people remember me. At some of our conferences, there are hundreds of men and less than 10 women. I feel like this has given me a good platform for spreading my technical ideas.”

    NARULA: “I don’t think any two people are ever treated the “same,” male or female—we all have inherent biases that come out in different ways. An environment that is predominantly male feels different than one that is more balanced. I found I prefer the latter, but sadly don’t have it often.”

  • Glassman on making the case for programming to students who don’t think it interests them:

    “I never took a CS class in high school. It was AP CS, in Java, and just seemed incredibly irrelevant to me. I was coding in Matlab and C, doing pattern recognition and signal processing on a dataset of brainwaves posted by NIPS. I cared about the brainwaves, and the best way to extract information from them. I didn’t care about programming itself. This is a long-winded way of saying that I think we can bring in folks (high school girls, for example) by showing them how programming is a critical piece of something bigger that they may want to create!”

  • Brian Chan, on if he considers his work to be about mathematics, engineering, or art:

    “The 3-D printed sculptures I make are mostly about art and science, but there’s a fair bit of engineering required to get the joints to print out and work correctly. Similarly, my costumes are mostly art (or at least, presentation, theatricality) but again, some of the parts like the armor articulation, require a lot of engineering so that they’re comfortable, durable, and manufacturable, all while having the right form factor!”

  • Brian Chan, on the challenges of building musical instruments:

    “In some ways it’s a lot more difficult than other engineered structures. If you build a violin 20% thicker, the sound will be much weaker, and the instrument would probably be considered near-worthless; but if you make a robot arm 20% thicker than it had to be, it’d just end up being a little bit too strong.

    “I’m still very much in the experimenting stage of my musical instruments (folding ukulele and folding shamisen) and I’m finding out the hard way that it does get tricky. However, I’ve been learning and experimenting a lot, and the sound is getting better and better.”

Read the full Reddits:

Elena Glassman, Neha Narula, and Jean Yang

Brian Chan

Glassman, Narula, and Yang’s AMA drew some unexpected attention. Read their follow-up, MIT Computer Scientists Demonstrate the Hard Way that Gender Still Matters, at WIRED.

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