Women in STEM

Winning Computer Science

The words she speaks reveal her high intelligence, but there’s also something in Rachel Harsley’s polished voice that points to a strong will and a rock solid determination. Even talking with her over the phone, you sense you’re dealing with a winner — not the kind of person you’d want to cover one on one in basketball, a sport she played, by the way, as a scholar-athlete in high school.

Now a full-time scholar pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Harsley scored a recent win for her use of information technology in education. The Illinois Technology Foundation named her one of its “Fifty for the Future,” last October. She and the other young technology innovators chosen for the award were honored at a reception at the Chicago Cultural Center.

One of the projects that earned her this recognition is an iPad application (app) named Helio Room, which is used to help third-graders learn about the solar system. The app is part of a high-tech system, designed by her faculty advisor and herself, that uses multimedia to capture students’ imagination and make them feel they’re in outer space, learning from the vantage point of the Sun.

“It’s a really nice way to engage the students. They enjoy it,” she says.

Besides studying and doing research in laboratories at UIC, Harsley sometimes mentors undergraduate students in computer science.

Her area of research is natural language processing, which is what computers do to understand and generate language as a human being does. Think about Siri on iPhones, for example, or what Google search does to process a sentence you type in and figure out what you’re looking for.

Hearing her talk with such confidence about the work she loves makes it hard to believe that Harsley once had to be encouraged to take computer science.

“There was an introductory computer science class, ‘Introduction to C++,’ that my high school offered. I didn’t think I would fit in the class (because the) people I knew there were all males and mainly white and just seemed like really nerdy types. But my (math) teacher was like, ‘You’re doing really great in this math class. I think you should consider taking computer science.’

“So just (taking) his advice, I enrolled in the course, and I really, really liked it. From that point on, even when I was applying for my undergraduate studies, I knew that my major was going to be either computer science or computer engineering.”

Still, her undergraduate career at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., was tough at times, Harlsey says, especially courses outside of computer science, such as chemistry. She considered quitting, but that’s when NSBE came in. One of her tutors was the NSBE chapter president at Vanderbilt, and she persuaded Harsley and two of her friends to join.

“NSBE was just such an important part of my success as an undergraduate,” she says, “and even now I’m just appreciative beyond words for what NSBE did for me in terms of finishing up my degree at Vanderbilt.”

Harsley’s area of research is natural language processing, which is what computers do to understand and generate language as a human being does.