I was a freshman in college when I first laid my hands on a computer.
It was 1997 and I had just arrived in the U.S. from India. I'll never forget how amazed I was at how much that computer could do. It made the simplest tasks easier and more efficient. Instead of writing a letter, which my parents in India would receive several weeks later, I could send an email. It gave me an instant connection to loved ones and the world around me. That computer ignited my journey towards a Ph.D. in computer science.
Now, I'm a researcher at AT&T Labs, working on speech and language technologies to improve communication and reduce accessibility barriers for all people. I analyze human speech to automatically identify emotions and intent, and I build synthetic voices to embody different characters and emotions. Considering I never touched a computer prior to college, I still find it hard to believe that I get to do this kind of exciting, fun and forward-looking research.
So, how'd I get here and what can you do to join me? Here are three tips:
1.Inventory your interests.
I discovered early on that I loved math and science. I was also very passionate about my community. I never viewed these as competing interests, but I often wondered how I could marry my academic interests with my passion for service.
I enrolled in college as a math major and was required to take a few computer science classes. Once I completed my first class, I was hooked - the time it took me to appreciate the computer and its potential for my life was almost instant.
As a senior in college, I worked on a research project to make computer programming more accessible to visually impaired students. That's when my love for service met my talents in science. I saw firsthand how I could use technology to make a difference in someone's life.
2.Stay interested in STEM.
It is unfortunate that so many young girls begin losing interest in math and science during middle school. I think several negative misperceptions are the cause: boys are better at math; science and technology are male-dominated fields; science is boring. Don't believe any of them! If you like math and science and put in the work, you will be just as great as any other student. If you have a passion for science, it is never boring, it is fun and exciting and cool.
Another reason I think some young girls lose interest in STEM is simply because their friends do. Girls, don't be easily persuaded by what's popular or trendy. The greatest innovators aren't afraid to follow their passions. Stay interested and connected by learning more about potential careers in STEM and seeking opportunities to apply what you're learning in school to real life.
Looking for more inspiration? The first computer program was written in 1842 by Ada Lovelace, a female mathematician.
3.Connect with mentors.
Mentors play a big role in navigating professional and personal lives. Throughout my education and internships, I developed relationships with those who could give me real world advice and mentor me. I became interested in math because of an amazing teacher I had, who was also an excellent role model. In college, I enrolled in computer science because of a female advisor, who later encouraged me to get my Ph.D. in computer science.
In my job at AT&T Labs, I have several mentors who help me in my technical work, advise me on balancing my family life with work (which is important for me as a mom with two children under the age of four) and encourage me to focus on community in and out of the workplace.
I sincerely believe that without these mentors, I would not have the fulfilling STEM career I have today.