Female Students Passionate About Expanding Opportunities in Computing Fields

Monday, November 23, 2015
Melissa Thai and Samantha Staszak at a computer.

Passionate About Computing: Seniors Melissa Thai (left) and Samantha Staszak are leading the new Women of Like Fields Passionate About Computing (WOLF PAC) organization, which includes nearly 40 students and hopes to attract more future female students to computing fields on campus.

Samantha Staszak and Melissa Thai didn't become interested in computing until their final year of high school. And, they noticed that few fellow female students shared their passion for possible computer science careers.

Now, in the midst of their senior years as computer science majors at Rose-Hulman, the duo has gathered nearly 40 students, forming a new campus organization to support and encourage more females to study computer science, software engineering, computer engineering, and electrical engineering.

Organized this fall, the Women of Like Fields Passionate About Computing (WOLF PAC) group is providing student social and mentoring networks, increasing awareness of professional development opportunities, and reaching out to encourage high school and middle school students to attend Rose-Hulman.

"It starts with us. It is our problem and we need to fix it," says Staszak, a computer science major from San Diego who is the organization's president and founder. "WOLF PAC wants to encourage more women to join us in our common goal of helping change lives through computing and engineering."

Thai, WOLF PAC's vice president, adds, "We need to change the impressions of computing being a male-dominated career field. These stereotypes are embedded early. Young girls are exposed to what society considers "feminine" - like dolls, instead of learning about robotics, computing, and coding. WOLF PAC is definitely a step in the right direction."

WOLF PAC started by hosting a pumpkin decorating social event during the Halloween season. Technology executive Ruth Hennigar, with over 20 years of experience in startup and Fortune 500 high-tech companies, will be speaking to group members and other students during a campus event on December 9.

"We have been encouraged by the outpouring of support from other students, the faculty, academic departments, and administrators. Hopefully, we're leaving a legacy for others to follow. The sky's the limit for this organization and its efforts," says Staszak.

Valerie Galluzzi, assistant professor of computer science and software engineering, is WOLF PAC's faculty advisor.

Junior computer science student Morgan Cook states, "The computer world is the world of the future, and it is important that women not be afraid to break into such a male-dominated world. It is a highly male-dominated field, but that just means that the few women have to bond together and help each other out. That female comradeship is exactly what WOLF PAC is designed to encourage."

Through the FIRST Robotics program, Thai learned that her computer programming skills could help large-scale robots accomplish goals in the worldwide competition. The computer science and software engineering student from Manassas, Virginia later completed web- and smartphone-based projects for Freescale Semiconductor (Austin, Texas) and The Omni Group (Seattle). She enjoys participating in hackathon events in her spare time at Rose-Hulman.

Meanwhile, Staszak spent last summer researching learning from demonstration algorithms at the University of California-Berkeley's Laboratory for Automation Sciences and Engineering, after having internships with Rockwell Collins Inc. and Blizzard Entertainment. She is now investigating opportunities in computer science doctoral degree programs.

"I love problem-solving. It's in my blood," she says.

Sharing that passion, Cook adds, "I have always been fascinated with new technologies and in learning how and why things work. I became interested in computer science because computers are such a mystical and interesting object, with so much potential. There are so many new technologies to be developed and I want to be at the forefront of those discoveries and developments."

Cook developed an iPhone application during an internship last summer at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C. She is planning to spend the upcoming summer at Progressive Insurance Company in Cleveland.

"There are so many career options for computer scientists. Even seemingly non-computer related fields such as law firms are highly dependent upon computer technologies," she says.