Students juggle research, education and extracurriculars

Mariana Duarte and Keyoni McNair are women conducting research in a male-dominated field, club leaders inspiring change and undergraduate students exploring what it means to be a computer scientist. 

Duarte and McNair are both pursuing their undergraduate degrees at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB). Both also serve as founding officers in CSUMB’s Women in Computer Science club, and both are among the small number of women studying computer science. It was hard for Duarte to be one of few female students in her classes, and with the challenges she faced, she almost changed her major.

“It was really hard for me to visualize myself staying with computer science throughout,” she said, due to the lack of female computer science professors in the program. “There [wasn’t] really anybody that looks like me.”

On top of their already challenging coursework, Duarte and McNair also chose to take on research projects. Duarte and McNair were both chosen to participate in the McNair Scholars program, and Duarte was chosen to participate in a summer research program at the computing center of The University of Texas at Austin.

“Being curious about research seems to be the first step of becoming a researcher. Once that ball is rolling, the support is there!” McNair said. 

Duarte also believes being “determined and optimistic” is important to succeed in research.

“Research … it’s not easy to conduct,” Duarte said. 

Both Duarte and McNair described experiencing imposter syndrome at times. “Sometimes, looking around, it never feels like I’m not doing enough, or I’m not doing things right,” McNair said.

Despite the challenges, McNair and Duarte love what they do. “The most challenging part is when the research gets a bit more exciting than the normal classwork,” McNair said.

“Sometimes in the thick of it – reading papers, analysing data – it’s hard to believe it’s second to classwork,” she said. “It’s so good to have a great mentor that helps you keep your wits and reminds you of your belonging, and accomplishments in your work!” 

McNair also talked about research being rewarding. She likes being part of looking at ideas from a new perspective and possibly finding out things that people were not aware of. “The best part of being a research student is learning things beyond the classroom structure,” she said. “I’m learning something new every week about research that I would never have come across in my current coursework.”

What interested Duarte about research was getting the chance to research new things. “I could discover new things,” she said. “It was pretty exciting to say ‘oh wow, you know I discovered this or I answered this research question.’”

Undergraduate students interested in research might consider participating in an Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program or participating in one of CSUMB’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center programs.

“Go for it … grab the opportunity,” said Duarte. “You have to be selfish early on in your career because this is the time for you to be selfish, and (you) don’t be shy. It really shows when you are taking initiative it really shows how proactive you are.” 

“I’d recommend research to anyone who is looking to learn more about their subject in a hands on way,” said McNair.

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