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Alicia Abella Headshot

Girls: Passionate About Helping People? Try A STEM Career

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"Making your mark on the world is hard," President Obama simply put during a 2006 speech. When I was a young girl I knew I wanted to help people. Considering my fascination with simply knowing how things worked, I had trouble picturing how I could turn that passion into a career. It's easy to imagine yourself helping others as a doctor or a firefighter, but as a computer scientist? That's tricky to comprehend, let alone embark on a career to help improve the lives of people.

I approached my schooling, and eventually computer science, from a very practical place. My parents emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba and worked tirelessly to give me the one thing that they felt no one could take away: my education. Where my parents lacked in formal education, they made up in support of my future. Education was their priority and so it became mine as well.

As a junior in high school, I took my first computer programming class where I learned the basics of computing: how to solve problems, code and eventually use those tools to make my ideas come to life. This was during the time that computers were becoming streamlined - people were finding them on their desks as opposed to laboratories. It was a new and exciting place as I saw more companies shifting work to this desktop machine.

However, I still wasn't sure how I was going to help people in this area I felt so naturally passionate about. I wish I could tell you I came to the realization sooner and that my path was constantly purposeful and selfless, but it simply wasn't. In 1989 I began an internship with AT&T Bell Labs and it clicked. Somewhere during the time I was working with researchers on projects like artificial intelligence and computer graphics, I saw firsthand the impact my work could have on others.

After achieving my Ph.D. from Columbia University, I returned to AT&T where today I lead the empowering devices team at AT&T Labs. My team's goal: to create devices that give people superhuman capabilities.

I recently returned to Columbia University where I had the privilege of receiving the University Medal for Excellence. While this award is certainly a high point in my career, it also marks the first time since it was created in 1929 that the Medal has gone to an engineer. This is a step for all engineers towards being recognized as the next generation of innovators affecting positive change.

It's important for young girls to be exposed to and experience early in life the advances being made by scientists and engineers to enhance quality of life. While my parents were far from being computer scientists, they encouraged me and showed a genuine interest in my school work. Today, I am handing down my parents' legacy to my own son - instilling in him the determination and drive to succeed in a world that so desperately needs a new generation of innovators.

I also sit on President Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics where I work with a variety of members from the science, business, academia and arts fields to encourage minorities and women to pursue STEM careers.

Our youth are our future. Starting now, we can all do something to help them realize their unique passions and bring them to reality.