I was recently invited to speak at a faculty panel event hosted by the Women in Computer Science (WiCS) at UC Davis. Since I had received a list of questions in advance, I had taken the opportunity to prepare some notes for the event. Now that the event has happened, I’ve expanded upon these notes, based on what I actually said during the event. I hope that someone will find these revised notes useful!
- Tell us about yourself–current position, department, how long you have been at UC Davis
I have been at UC Davis for seven years! I first started in WQ17 as a temporary
part-time lecturer, initially to teach ECS 150, before quickly becoming a
full-time lecturer. A couple years later, I was hired for a faculty position.
It’s now been five years that I’m an Assistant Professor of Teaching, which is a
relatively new position in the UC system. My primary focus is on teaching
excellence, while my second focus is on research (which for me is geared towards
CS Education) – FYI, it is typically the other way around for regular
“research” professors, whose main focus is on research. As a faculty member, a
fair amount of my time is also spent on service duties, such as working on the
accreditations of our majors, hiring/reviewing lecturers, and a bunch of other
- How did you get to where you are now?
Probably by a lucky mix of hard work and privilege.
They’re now long retired but my parents both graduated with a PhD and worked in academia during their entire career. As a kid, I used to spend a fair amount of time at my mom’s office, doing my homework, playing on her computer, and hanging out with her students and colleagues. When I became a college student myself some years later, it felt natural to embark on a PhD and pursue an academic career. It’s also been very useful all through my academic career thus far to be able to ask my parents for advice.
Now, don’t get me wrong; obtaining a PhD, holding multiple postdoc positions, being recruited in this job, etc. was really hard, and included working long hours, often suffering from insomnia, feeling miserable at times, etc.! But at least, I rarely felt like I didn’t belong, which removed a big burden that many people may otherwise experience.
I started by doing research in hardware security mechanisms. But after a PhD and a postdoc in this field, I realized that disciplinary research wasn’t for me and also found research in computer architecture frustrating. It is typically too expensive to implement anything physically, so research ideas are often developed in simulators only. I then pivoted towards kernel development, which was a lot more fun. The project of porting the Linux kernel to a novel 96-core processor architecture will always be one of my biggest achievements. With my new skills in kernel development, I worked in the industry for a little bit, and while it was a great experience, I had a hard time finding purpose working on industrial projects. That’s when I applied to UC Davis for a lecturer position, and found a passion for becoming an educator.
- What were you involved with as an undergrad student? Research, clubs, classes, social life?
In France, our education system works very differently. As an undergrad, most of my work was done in class. I’d have lectures and various types of labs throughout the entire day. On average, I’d typically have class from 9-5 with a 1-hour lunch break. Unlike here, I’d have very little homework outside of class (especially if I was able to finish my labs within the allotted time, which was usually the case). Once class was over for the day, I’d have the entire evening to hang out with my friends, watch movies, play video games, walk around in Paris, etc. :)
Being a professor
- What does a typical day look like for you?
It really depends on the day and on the quarter.
The days I’m teaching, I’ll typically spend most of the day on teaching-related tasks, such as preparing my lecture (reviewing my slides, and/or making some adjustments to them), holding a couple of office hours, publishing grades, sending announcements on Canvas, etc. I may also try to squeeze in some service-related tasks, such as participating in various committee meetings, writing documents, etc.
Since I usually teach three days a week (MWF), it leaves two days for research-related tasks. This quarter, I’ve used my Tuesdays to have most of my research meetings. This is when I meet with the students in my lab and discuss their progress on our projects. On Thursdays, I typically stay home and try my best not to schedule any meetings, so that I can fully focus on some research projects (or write an article for this website!).
- What did you like most about your work/job?
Many things! :D
First, I like the overall purpose of my job. I truly enjoy being in the classroom and helping students learn about computer science so that one day they can have a successful career in this field. I also enjoy that all my research activities are focused on education, and how to make it more accessible and inclusive.
Second, in terms of logistics, I like the flexibility of this job and not having a boss. I’m regularly evaluated (every two years for merits, and on average every 5 to 6 years for promotions) so there are clear expectations to deliver results, such as being recognized as an excellent teacher, being involved in education-related research projects, etc. However, no one is over my shoulder every day. As long as I achieve these results, I have full control on my time and on the process I choose to follow.
- What is your favorite class to teach and why?
Most of the classes that I teach are core courses in the CS curriculum: ECS 36C (data structures), ECS 50 (computer organization), ECS 150 (operating systems). I honestly love teaching all of them equally. It’s awesome to teach foundational topics to students and see them grow as computer scientist over the span of just one quarter.
I only teach one CS elective, which is ECS 158 (programming on parallel architectures). It’s a fun class to teach, especially since I often get the best students from ECS 150!
- Have you ever faced discrimination, microagressions, or conflict in the workplace? If so, how did you deal with that?
Luckily, I have not faced any discrimination in my career so far.
If ever I face some microagressions (e.g., having an accent and/or making language mistakes sometimes prompts people to make mocking comments), I typically try my best to confront my offender and let them know that I didn’t appreciate their comment(s).
I have had lots of work conflicts during my career. The best advice I’ve received is to have live conversations with people when there are issues to address. It’s especially easy to get upset and get into arguments online (e.g., over email, or chat), but a good, old face-to-face conversation usually does the trick to finding common grounds and solving conflicts.
Finally, we often talk about being on the receiving end of microagressions but we should also acknowledge that we’re sometimes the “aggressors” too. I’ve personally committed my fair share of microaggressions, and probably still do. So I try my very best to listen to people’s feedback and adjust my behavior accordingly. For example, I always read my course evaluations entirely and very carefully at the end of each quarter, and if I see that a number of students complain about the same thing (for instance, that I was unnecessarily harsh on the online forum for a particular class), I will try to think of ways I can prevent that from happening in the future.
- Were there any misconceptions or assumptions that you had about being a professor that proved to be false – or true? (Expectations vs. reality)
Honestly, not so much. I admired many of my professors when I was a student and could tell how much work it seemed to represent. Now that I’m a professor, I feel like it matched what I expected.
- In your career, if you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently?
It’s hard to answer. I’m so happy to be where I am today that I can’t regret any decisions I made. Even the numerous failures I experienced contributed to me landing here, so in many ways, they were useful failures!
If I really had to find one thing, I may say that I wish I had studied abroad earlier. My first experience abroad was in India, in between my master’s and PhD, and it was an eye opening experience between in a foreign country, speaking another language, and being surrounded by another culture. That’s what motivated me to apply for a postdoc in the US after my PhD, and eventually brought me here today.
- It’s common for students to be nervous about attending office hours. What kinds of questions do you wish your students would ask more often?
I wish students asked me less questions about class and more questions about life in general!
There are so much more that professors can provide, beyond helping students on a particular homework. Whenever students approach me like I’m not (only) a resource towards their academic success, they quickly see that I’m also a human being with an interesting story to tell and a supportive ear. Among the many students who gave it a try over the years, I have occasionally formed meaningful friendships.
- Women in STEM sometimes face bias or feel isolated in their majors, leading them to switch to different paths. What would you say to a female-identifying student contemplating leaving CS or Engineering because she feels unsupported or “not smart enough.”
From my many interactions with female students (and even some of my own work on gender and class participation in CS classes), I know the struggle is unfortunately real.
I would encourage students to find a trusted mentor (like an older student, or a faculty) and/or make a tight group of STEM friends, and use them to support you throughout your CS journey. Whenever you have any doubts or face any hardships, you’ll have people to go for a friendly ear, advice, etc.
- What is an interesting fact about yourself or your journey that students are surprised to learn?
Unrelated to CS but since we’re in CA, I used to be into skateboarding a long long time ago! At the peak of my skateboarding abilities, I could do a 360-kickflip and I could ollie over 2 feet 🛹.