Meet Melanie Sawyer, this week’s CU Women in STEM subject, computer scientist, and origami enthusiast!

Bwog Science is back with CU Women in STEM, where we highlight the amazing women in science at Columbia. Today’s profile is from Melanie Sawyer, SEAS ’20, a proud programmer and leader of ADI, a Columbia community of students interested in technology!

Major: Computer Science

What subjects are you interested in: I love so many different spheres of computer science: Arduinos are the coolest and I highly recommend learning some lower-level programming. I’ve recently gotten into data visualization and have dabbled in design. I’ve done a bunch of back-end web dev at my various internships. I’m also really interested in the intersection of CS/EE and earth science. Most recently, I built solar panels for my bike to charge my bike light batteries while I ride. I’m currently taking suggestions for my next bike/CS/hardware project.

How did you get interested in your subject? Can you remember the moment that got you hooked? My dad is an electrical engineer and he uses Matlab a lot to do signal analysis. I always thought that was the coolest part of his job. I really liked math in middle and high school, and I took some computer science classes in high school. I was lucky enough to do research at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) after my senior year of high school, and was running these egregious brute force algorithms when I realized how incredibly powerful programming is.

Most important research/extracurricular experiences so far:

The summer after my freshman year, I was selected as one of 29 students in the hackNY Fellows program. I worked at a startup in Soho, lived with 28 other awesome computer science students from around the country, and went to talks every week from super influential people in the NYC tech community (Jonah Peretti, Amanda Cox, Sisi Wei, Camille Fournier, etc). I was still a young, lost, floating blob with little sense of how technology was changing our culture. and how I might fit into that, but after that one summer, I had a renewed sense of purpose and understanding. Also, since I was working at a relatively small startup, I got to break things and prod on an almost weekly basis. Good times.

Within the Columbia community, I spend most of my time outside class helping to run ADI, Columbia’s largest tech club. Last year, I was the director of DevFest, ADI’s spring hackathon. DevFest was one of the most stressful, intense projects I’ve ever embarked on, but it was so incredibly rewarding to see so many new and old members of the Columbia tech community come together. Working with ADI has given me more patience, charisma, and leadership experience than any course at Columbia ever could.

What are your career goals? I’m hoping to become a product manager and maybe someday dip my toes into data science. Mostly, I just want to work somewhere that allows dogs in the office.

Favorite science building on campus? Gotta go with the classic Pupin Hall. The moldy ceilings, putrid smell of chlorine, and bathrooms that make me feel like a 1950s secretary reaffirm why we all pay 70,000$/year to go to this school.

Favorite scientist? I’m really inspired by Megan Smith, former CTO of the White House under Barack Obama. She’s done so much for the tech community and is a really cool human.

What do you do BESIDES science? I play ultimate frisbee on the Columbia Women’s team and you will often see me throwing on the Columbia lawns instead of doing my homework. I love riding my bike around NYC. I’m also really into the weird, niche craft of modular origami (which was one of the earliest signs that I really liked math)! Catch me folding some paper during lectures.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a STEM major? Stop giving a singular f*** about what people think of you. I remember that when I was in my first programming class at Columbia, I was TERRIFIED to ask questions for fear that my peers would think I was dumb. Turns out, I started learning WAY more when I asked questions, and now I’m a TA for that very class. I became infinitely more successful when I spoke up for myself, argued with my (often overconfident male) peers, and applied for opportunities I thought I had no shot at. Also, go to class. Yes, you can learn all of linear algebra from the textbook 17.3 hours before the final but that’s no fun (can speak from personal experience).

Favorite classes/professors at Columbia?

  • 1007 (Honors Intro to Computer Science) with John Kender: I don’t know where I’d be as a computer scientist without this class.
  • Advanced Programming with Jae Woo Lee: Traumatic but life changing
  • UI Design with Lydia Chilton
  • Programming & Problem Solving with Kenneth Ross
  • Intro to Linguistics with John McWhorter
  • And the classic 9am gym class that I’ve signed up for every semester and dropped after 2 weeks