UIC student Jillian Aurisano receives Google Anita Borg Memorial scholarship

May 22nd, 2012

Categories: Academic, Applications, Data Mining, Education, MS / PhD Thesis, Software, Visualization

Jillian Aurisano, UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory.
Jillian Aurisano, UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory.


70 young women recognized as Google Anita Borg Memorial scholars

May 22, 2012

UIC computer science graduate student Jillian Aurisano was selected one of 70 international Google Anita Borg Memorial scholars for 2012. These 70 young women, in addition to 79 finalists, attend universities in the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East or Africa. Google created this scholarship in 2004 to encourage women to excel in computing and technology and become active role models and leaders in the field; the scholarship honors the memory of Dr. Anita Borg, who devoted her life to encouraging the presence of women in computing.

To apply, Aurisano had to gather recommendation letters, transcripts, and a Curriculum Vitae, and had to write three essays about her research, her leadership skills, and her suggestions for improving the number of women and minorities who enter computing and technology fields. She also had to participate in a lengthy phone interview with a Google employee.

Aurisano’s academic achievements, unique technical abilities, volunteer leadership efforts, strong communication skills and amiable personality make her very deserving of this scholarship. Moreso, Google has gained an excellent role model that epitomizes the essence of what this scholarship aims to achieve.

With an undergraduate degree in biology, Aurisano came to UIC in 2009 to pursue her MS (and ultimately PhD) in computer science. At that time, the UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) was starting to work with a professor of molecular biology and an industrial partner doing metagenomics, so EVL Director Jason Leigh was delighted to find someone who could both understand, and speak, biology. Aurisano immediately began synthesizing what biologists needed and what EVL had to offer, and in the first of her essays about her research, she wrote how “visualization provides a powerful platform for combining expert judgment with computational approaches, facilitating hypothesis formation, data analysis and an iterative refinement of explanatory models.”

Aurisano’s second essay described her leadership roles and community outreach. She is “passionate about challenging this notion that good computer scientists are lifelong, tech-obsessed geeks who live to program,” as she discovered that “computer science is a field for creative and intellectually curious people who want to contribute in meaningful ways to the world.” Since 2011, Aurisano has been President of the UIC Women in Computer Science (WiCS) club, organizing “Girls in CS” events for visiting elementary and high school students; she has assisted EVL with tours and demos; and, she has helped introduce children to the programming language Scratch.

Aurisano’s third essay addressed Anita Borg’s “50/50 by 2020” initiative, so that women earning computing degrees would be 50% of the graduates by the year 2020. Aurisano wrote that she believes “gender imbalance in CS programs should build upon existing research and successful programs that recruit and retain women in the field,” and cites the 2002 book “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computer”. Aurisano believes “that there are two issues underlying the absence of women in CS departments: the computing experience gap between girls and boys that develops during adolescence, and introductory CS courses that fail to consider the background, learning style and interests of women considering CS careers.”

Once the essays and telephone interview were over, Aurisano was asked why she thought she got the scholarship, besides her research in functional genomics. “I have been president of WiCS this past year, so I believe some of the activities I helped organize came into play,” she said, and “I also believe that EVL-sponsored events for young women interested in CS helped my application as well.” EVL hosts many tours and demos, including recruitment efforts by the UIC CS department and College of Engineering, the UIC Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) pre-college outreach program, the Engineering Week open house, the “Bring Your Daughters to Work” day, and numerous occasional requests - such as faculty members who organized a trip for their daughters’ Girl Scout Troop and a UIC staff person who brought her daughter’s 2nd grade class.

Google Anita Borg Scholarship recipients each receive a financial award for the academic year, and attend a two-day “Google Scholars Retreat” at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, in June 2012.

Read more about the winners