Geek of the Week: Melissa Winstanley, UW computer science standout

Computer science grad Melissa Winstanley, winner of the UW President's Medal. (Annie Laurie Malarkey photo)

Melissa Winstanley didn’t set out to be a computer scientist, but she has become a remarkable one — and she’s just getting started.

The 22-year-old recent graduate of the University of Washington’s Computer Science & Engineering program is the winner of the 2012 UW President’s Medal, an honor given each year to the student with the most distinguished academic record in the UW’s entire senior class.

A Seattle resident who grew up in Bellevue, she is also an accomplished musician, performing as saxophone principal in the UW Wind Ensemble. She was head teaching assistant in the CSE 143 class for the 2011-12 academic year, and chair of the UW’s ACM-W chapter. She completed two internships at Google and focused her year-long honors research project on mobile tools for public health.

So what has she learned, and where is she headed next? Continue reading for her answers to our Geek of the Week questionnaire.

Why did you decide to study computer science, and what excites you most about the field? 

My first computer science class was one I was required to take for another major. I didn’t expect to like it: in my mind, computer science was for men who slouched at a basement desk and drank Mountain Dew. Within a few weeks, however, I was in love. Much to my surprise, computer science was fun. The final assignment for the course involved building a file compression utility; with less than six months of experience, I built a tool similar to one I use on my computer every day. I enjoyed every minute of the course, so I followed my heart and applied to Computer Science. I have never regretted the choice. I continue to love the mix of problem-solving and real, tangible results. The fact that what I build can affect and benefit people all over the world — whether it’s back-end infrastructure or front-end web design — is incredibly exciting.

What do you plan to do next in your career or studies? I’m not ready to leave school yet (two years of coursework is just not enough), so I’ll be coming back to the University of Washington next year for the combined BS/MS program. I’m also very excited about teaching, so I’ll continue serving as a teaching assistant for computer science courses, educating the next wave of engineers.

After that, I plan to enter industry as a software engineer.

As a sax player, you’re upholding a long tradition of computer scientist/musicians. What appeals to you about technology and music, and how do you blend those two worlds into your life?

It’s extremely hard for me to talk about music: it has been a part of me for most of my life, and I can’t imagine my life without it. But I think what appeals to me most about music is the opportunity to take a basic outline (the written music) and transform it into something that has meaning. When you look at notes on the page, it represents absolutely nothing to someone who can’t read music. Yet when those same notes are expressed aurally, it’s hard for anyone not to react. The thrill of loud, fast passages; the sadness of slow, minor phrases; and the uplifting emotion of soaring, lyrical sections justify the mathematical yet creative precision that I use as a musician to make beautiful sounds.

The same mathematical creativity is what appeals to me about computer science. The programmer takes a basic outline — a problem statement, a spec, or a vague idea understandable only by other engineers — and builds a system with meaning. The exact implementation and design is where the creativity emerges. I’ve heard from non-tech friends that they see engineering as an exclusively logical, deterministic field, which is not true at all. The systems that we build can be just as beautiful, well-executed, and meaningful as a piece of music.

I don’t know, however, that I can blend these two worlds into my career. Since the playing of music is what excites me most (not composition, analysis, or fabrication — for example, digital music isn’t particularly my thing), I’ll continue to play the saxophone at the University of Washington and in my community. But computer science is my future: I look forward to engineering the next generation of technological solutions to the world’s problems. Music will be there for me whenever I need a familiar friend to buoy my spirits.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your Google internships?

Talk, talk, talk! The conception of the software engineer as an antisocial individual is completely wrong, and the ability to communicate is vital to success in the workplace. Talk is what sells your new idea for a feature; talk fixes conflicts between teams; talk determines the future of the product; talk helps you learn from your peers; and talk ameliorates problems when they inevitably arise. The one regret I have about my first internship is that I didn’t talk enough to my host and to the people on my team, and as a result I wasn’t as productive as I might have been.

Your year-long honors research project focused on the use of mobile technologies for public health. What is the potential for mobile devices to change the diagnosis of disease and delivery of health care?

I believe that mobile devices have huge potential to improve health care in developing regions, but I’m also of the opinion that simply dropping these technologies into existing infrastructure is going to be a waste. A user who has limited experience with technology in general and even more limited experience with smartphones is unlikely to be an effective user of a cutting-edge new smartphone app, however useful we might think it to be. The advantage of mobile is that it’s portable, ideal for remote locations where health care most needs improvement. It’s an immense advantage, but one that won’t be taken advantage of until the culture and infrastructure around mobile is right for its adoption.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without? I’m sure every young adult in the United States feels this way, but I couldn’t live without my smartphone. It’s my watch, my alarm clock, my email client, my todo list, my calendar, and of course my telephone.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work/studies and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Get enough sleep. You may be overwhelmed, but that all-nighter isn’t worth it.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I used Windows almost exclusively until I started my computer science degree; however, I recently got a Macbook Air and now I’m a complete convert to the Apple club.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? I really don’t have much knowledge about Star Trek outside of the newest movie (*gasp*) so I’d have to say Kirk because I don’t know the others well. I was always a Star Wars fan myself, and my favorite character there is definitely C-3PO!

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter. There’s so many places I’d love to visit (Egypt, India, China, Greece, Argentina, Costa Rica, etc.) but just don’t have the time to.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Have to think about it a lot. I’m definitely still interested in the small-company route, but I need to find that exciting spark. I’m excited about different ways to visualize information, so possibly something in data visualization?

I once waited in line for … Five of the Harry Potter movies, but I only dressed up once.

Bill Nye

Your role models (And why?): As a musician, my role model is Eugene Rousseau, one of the most famous classical saxophonists in the world. I have had the opportunity to meet him and discovered that he is more than just an outstanding musician. He is also a patient teacher, a supportive listener, and one incredibly kind-hearted person.

As a scientist, my role model is Bill Nye, who inspired me throughout my childhood with his TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy. If I can achieve one-tenth of his passion for what he does, I’ll be doing pretty well.

And as a teacher, my role model is the lecturer who introduced me to computer science, Stuart Reges.

Greatest Game In History: Chess. I’m not very good and don’t play much, but the artistry in a Grandmasters game is undeniable.

Best Gadget Ever: GPS navigation tools. I’d be lost without them.

First computer: The first computer that was exclusively my own was a Dell Latitude laptop, which saw me through almost four years of college.

Current phone: An HTC Evo. Not perfect, but it keeps me connected.

Favorite app: I just discovered Instagram and it’s my new favorite.

Favorite hangout: The Atrium in the Paul Allen Computer Science Center at the University of Washington. Whether it’s for lunch, coffee, a project meeting, office hours, or just hanging out with friends, the huge skylights are a welcome change from the dark of the computer labs.

Favorite cause: The promotion of women in computing — the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology does a great job of helping women become excited about and succeed in computer science. Their annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is an excellent event that anyone interested in promoting women in technology should check out.

Most important technology of 2012: Mobile technologies.

Most important technology of 2015: Machine learning and AI applications. Whether it’s breakthrough DNA analysis or self-driving cars, we’ll be using computers to process our information in ever more complicated ways.

Words of advice for your fellow geeks: If you don’t try it, you don’t know if you like it! I wish I could go back and tell my 18-year-old self to give computer science a chance.

LinkedIn: Melissa Winstanley

Previously on GeekWire: Meet the Future: These 21 UW computer science grads are ready to change the world

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to tips@geekwire.com.

Photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey. See this site for more of her work.

Bill Nye image via Wikimedia Commons

  • http://twitter.com/Chris_Halasz Christina Halasz

    I think Paul Allen has a groupie. Nice to see she’s advancing on her own merits and not due to insider information she gleaned at the cost of innocent people’s lives…

  • http://www.access-indaba.com/ Jonathan Price

    Bright future ahead for sure. Couldn’t help but read Melissa’s narration with a Lisa Simpson voice in my head. Must be the sax ;-)

  • Joselyn@geeky gadgets

    I read your whole article and it’s really inspire me to build my carrier as a teacher. You are really a genius student in your university .Your extra curriculum activities like play sax player is truly attract me very much. It’s really an encouraging article for me. I can achieve lots of knowledge from your article.

    http://www.geeeksy.com/