“I don’t think I’ll ever regret choosing CS” – from no code experience to research assistant

Ava Pardo-Keegan had never coded before she came to Michigan, and now works as a research assistant in natural language processing.

Ava Pardo-Keegan is a second-year student in computer science at the University of Michigan. Before she took Engineering 100, Ava had little exposure to computing and programming – but only a few years later, she’s done research in bioinformatics and natural language processing.

We sat down and talked with Ava about her experience as a student who was new to computer science. Here’s some of what she had to say:

My first exposure to computing

My first experience with CS was in Engineering 100. I was in the section that was tasked with building an autonomous drone, and I had no idea what that entailed. We had to program Arduinos and some simulated environments, and that started with Python. At first when I looked at the lines of code I had no idea what it meant. But, slowly but surely, after a lot of meetings with my IAs and professors, it made more and more sense.

It took a lot of time for me to get the foundations, but it’s an experience that was really valuable for me to start learning about CS. 

All the IAs and instructors I’ve had have been super helpful for me, and not just with technical issues. I’ve talked to them about experiences with imposter syndrome, or feeling behind in my classes, and they’ve always given me time to go over what was happening. 

My research experience

Last year I did the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) in a bioinformatics lab. I worked directly with C++, and going into it I really had no experience. It was really a formative experience for me, because I hadn’t done very well in my first semester. I was falling behind, and wasn’t able to keep up with a lot of people in my lab.

But I met with my mentor, and he helped me make a plan for the next semester to catch up and start learning about the basics of C++. It was a good experience for me, because it helped me realize that it’s OK if you fail. You can move forward and you still keep learning. It made me feel more proud of myself and helped me gain a lot of confidence.

Currently, I am a research assistant with the Explore Computer Science Research Program, which is for minority students or people who don’t have a lot of experience in computer science research. I’m doing natural language processing research, which is something I didn’t even know existed before this program. The research center has been really helpful and understanding of the fact that I don’t have a lot of experience in this, and guides me through each step. 

I love this program for the opportunities that are available

I check my email every single day and there’s always something new, whether it be volunteering, tutoring, or research. That’s how I actually got involved in my research, from an email from the EECS department. I come from a really rural area where we had no opportunities for STEM. So it’s been valuable for me to actually have those opportunities here. 

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there are some days – like where I have an exam, or there’s a concept that I don’t understand – when I think, “why did I do this to myself?” But when I have those moments, I sit and consider how far I’ve come from not knowing anything to where I am now. I evaluate all the opportunities I have now being in this program, and I don’t think I’ll ever regret choosing CS. 

Some advice I’d give to people who are new to CS is…

Don’t doubt yourself. It’s easy to compare yourself to other people who have more experience than you, especially at the University of Michigan. There are a lot of really, really intelligent and well-prepared people here, but don’t compare yourself to those people. Instead, reflect on what you have accomplished and how far you have come, and realize that you can do it. Take opportunities that are available to you and always do what you can. Computer science is a field you can succeed at, even if – like me – you came to it without previous experience.