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CU Women In STEM: Amita Shukla

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Meet today’s CU Women in STEM profile, Amita Shukla, who’ll be shaping the way that governments use technology in the future!

Bwog Science is back with CU Women in STEM, where we highlight the amazing women in science at Columbia. Today’s profile is from Amita Shukla (SEAS ’20), whose interests lie in computer science and public policy!

What subjects are you interested in? I’m majoring in Computer Engineering and minoring in Political Science. I’m interested in just about everything though! When I study abroad in two semesters I’m going to deliberately study something that isn’t either of those.

How did you get interested in your subject? Can you remember the moment that got you hooked? It actually wasn’t too long ago that electrical engineering and public policy, my two big current interests, were among the most boring things I could imagine. They both have pretty steep learning curves before things start to get interesting, and that’s basically where most people get alienated from them.

While I’ve been interested in building and designing things for a long time, which is a typical engineering backstory, I’ve always been a lot better at subjects in the humanities, like English.

I started computer engineering mainly for the intellectual rigor. Doing something that’s not your strength rewires your brain really noticeably. I feel like a lot more methods of thinking are available to me now, and my headspace has become a lot more varied and interesting. I’m staying with the major because I’ve started getting past the initial discomfort and found the subject matter to be really elegant and worthwhile.

Most important research/extracurricular experiences so far: This academic year, I’ve been working at the U.S. Department of State, creating a platform using interactive maps to help new diplomats get acquainted with their regions before deployment. Last year, I interned at the Harmony with Nature initiative at the U.N. and helped build a platform for scientists and policymakers to collaborate on proposing and passing international laws on sustainability.

What are your career goals? I want to work in the public sector to help governments build data aggregation and analysis tools, which would allow the government to work more efficiently and develop closer relationships to people.

Favorite place to study on campus? Watson Library in Uris. The space I take up in the B-school is the payment I require for putting up with pitches about joining their AI-blockchain-neural-networks-for-Uber in exchange for 1% equity.

Favorite scientist? Hedy Lamarr. As a radar specialist during WWII, she invented what evolved into WiFi and Bluetooth and made huge contributions to the Allied Powers defense. She was definitely one of the most brilliant minds EE has ever seen. Oh, and she was also an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie star.

What do you do BESIDES science? Design! This semester with my club, Design for America, I’m doing a project with the refugees who stay at St. Mary’s Church on 126th street. Last semester, also through Design for America, I worked with kids at the Harlem Educational Activities Foundation helping them plan out their educational trajectories. The community just outside the Columbia gates is so vibrant and I wish I’d started exploring it sooner.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a STEM major? It’s really easy to get lost in huge STEM lectures. Make friends in classes, make friends with professors, and create a situation in which your presence or absence in class and in office hours feels like it actually counts. No one gets through an engineering major alone.

If you feel like you’re less prepared than everyone else, it may well be true. But think of it as an opportunity and not as a mark of failure. According to US News, only 35% of the students in my high school graduate with state-level math proficiency. On many levels, I’m not equipped to compete.

But here, I get to study with people who have won international physics competitions, have patents, and have built the best robots in the country. I could choose to take that as a negative reflection on myself, but I choose instead to learn from them and to push myself alongside them.

Favorite classes/professors at Columbia? I’m taking Python and Databases with Donald Ferguson this semester, and I am always so impressed by both classes. He tells it like it is and respects you as a whole person. You get pushed way harder than in other sections of the same classes, but you learn so much more, and all of the homeworks are portfolio-worthy.

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