Nov 30 2016

Opening unexpected doors

Published by at 8:20 am under alumnus,faculty and tagged: , ,

I have learned an important truth that I like to share with students considering a career in computer science – that a career in computer science can mean a career in almost anything. Computers are everywhere and a part of everything, so there are probably careers that combine computer science with almost any other interest or passion that you have. This is important to me for two reasons – first, because I think far too few students really understand how much of the interesting work in the world today is occurring at the intersection of computer science and some other field (science, engineering, medicine, pharmacology, insurance, manufacturing, and even the humanities) and second, because my life has been profoundly shaped by the accidental discovery of a just such a passion that I continue to combine with computer science.


Photo by Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

I grew up loving to program but had no clue what I wanted to do with that skill. I got my first computer, a TRS-80 Model 1, in 1981, and while I did have a small number of games that I could play on it, the main thing I was interested in was figuring out how I could make it do what I wanted it to do. I loved both the creative thinking it allowed (WHAT can I make it do?) and the problem-solving skills involved (HOW can I make it do things?). For me, programming was both fun and rewarding. I continued programming throughout junior high and high school and decided I wanted to something with computer science. I didn’t know what exactly, but I had a plan to major in math (my other favorite subject) and then go to graduate school to study CS.

I didn’t know where I would end up or what I would do, but I followed my plan. When I got to graduate school, I was a good programmer, but I didn’t really understand much about computer science. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. Much of my thinking about computer science was shaped by movies I had seen. For example, it was while watching the movie War Games in 1983, that I first saw a computer that could learn. As with many of Hollywood’s visions of computers, the hype didn’t match reality. Still, when I started graduate school and was asked what I want to focus on, I believe that movie and others like it inspired me to respond with a tentative “artificial intelligence, I think.”

Then, nearly 10 years after first seeing War Games with its vision of a learning computer, I began to understand the realities of machine learning. Discovering that there are ways in which computer programs can actually learn how to improve themselves through experience was truly remarkable to me. They can even learn how to do things that we can’t directly program them to do. I was hooked! I had found what I wanted to do in computer science, but it wasn’t until another opportunity unexpectedly connected me to a new passion that I found a real purpose in my work.

A new unit in Vanderbilt’s Medical School, the Division of Biomedical Informatics, wanted a computer science graduate student to work with them. Not realizing where it would lead, I jumped at the opportunity. I was looking for a source of data, a valuable resource in machine learning, and they were looking for help with an innovative new project to use computers to help take better care of patients.

That opportunity turned into seven years of working closely with doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers discovering ways to help them deliver more effective, more efficient, and safer care – first as a graduate student, then as a full-time software engineer, and finally, as a member of the medical school faculty. I found it incredibly meaningful and rewarding, and now, more than 20 years after stumbling into medicine, that intersection of machine learning and healthcare still excites me and motivates much of my work.

As I hope my life shows, a degree in computer science can open doors you never even considered. Most of my students will, like I did, find a rewarding career by just pursuing their computer science interests – perhaps discovering other interests along the way, but I encourage computer science students who have another strong passion (e.g., biology, physics, healthcare, law, manufacturing) to actively explore ways to combine that passion with computer science. You just might find a way to do them both!

One response so far

One Response to “Opening unexpected doors”

  1.   Srinion 01 Dec 2016 at 6:32 am

    Well written Doug. Useful insight for those contemplating a career option.