5 questions with… computer science ambassador Ellen Kendall

Before arriving for her first year as a Case Western Reserve University student in the fall of 2015, Ellen Kendall had never seen a line of code. Her all-girls high school in Northern Kentucky didn’t offer computer science courses, so she had never even considered it as a potential career choice.

Besides, she had her sights set on a career in medicine, having been accepted into the Pre-Professional Scholars Program, which grants conditional admission to CWRU’s professional schools to outstanding first-year students.

But during spring semester of that first year at CWRU, Kendall took a SAGES course on the “Internet of Things,”—the vast interconnected network of devices—and fell in love with computer science.

Now, Kendall, a sophomore biology major in the Pre-Professional Scholars Program, is trying to bust the same misperception she held for computer scientists by demonstrating to other young women that they can thrive in the field as well.

“There’s no reason that any stereotypes or preconceived notions should stop anyone from pursuing something they’re interested in,” she said. “You just have to let your voice be heard.”

She’s spreading that message as part of the ambassador program offered by she++, a (California-based) nonprofit that empowers underrepresented groups in technology.

During spring break, Kendall brought her message back home her high school to introduce more students to computer science.

“Growing up, I had never been exposed to computer science at all,” she said.

Kendall taught herself the basics of the subject. After her SAGES class, in which she and a partner built a “smart” device, she wanted to learn more. She spent all last summer taking online classes and reading as much as she could about computer science.

To share her developing interest with others who hadn’t been exposed to computer science, either—and to encourage other young women to pursue the field—she applied—and was selected for—the she++ Ambassador Program.

As one of 10 college students from around the world in the program, Kendall hosts events for individuals of all backgrounds to learn more about computer science and advocates for underrepresented groups to become more active in the field.

During the first week of April, Kendall will travel to California for the she++ Summit, where she will meet with industry professionals in Silicon Valley to discuss representation in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] fields.

While still planning to pursue a career as a surgeon, Kendall hopes to incorporate computer science into her medical career with skills she’s learned to teach others in the field using virtual reality.

In fact, she’s already gotten a taste of how technology can impact medical education. Having joined the Interactive Commons team in the fall as a digital developer assistant, Kendall has worked on the HoloAnatomy project and is helping to create the curriculum she will use at the School of Medicine.

“It’s really cool to be able to see how this class is being put together,” she said. “It’s so different.”

Learn more about Kendall in this week’s five questions.

1. What do you like most about Cleveland?

I really like the hardworking nature of the city, the opportunities and Cleveland’s food, especially tacos from Barrio.

2. What’s your favorite social media platform?

Facebook still, because it’s such a good resource to network with people from all over the world.

3. What was the most influential class you’ve ever taken?

In high school, one of my teachers kind of made up a class called “independent research.” So I met before and after school on my own time, and she just let me have full reign of the physics lab to build a prototype or invent something. That’s where I built the water filter that I traveled the country with.

I invented this prototype in my basement and in my physics lab as part of this independent research class with next-to-no materials or funding, so it really taught me out to be innovative, how to think outside the box.

4. If you could meet any historical figure, who would you pick, and why?

Grace Hopper. She was the mother of computer science. She was an admiral in the [U.S.] Navy, who invented the first compiler [a computer program that translates source code from programming language to another computer language]. She completely changed how computer science and programing is done. One of her quotes is: “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” She was trailblazer and definitely a role model for all women in STEM, so I’d love to meet her.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The interdisciplinary nature of this school. People have the ability to try out whatever interests they have. You can be an engineering major in dance classes—or you could be a medical student in computer science classes. There’s no limit on what you take and what you learn. People are really here to foster your interests. CWRU has pushed me out of my comfort zone and that’s something I really appreciate.