Meet Our Majors

Meet some of our computer science majors.

 

Joaquín Madrid Larrañaga ’23

Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Major: computer science; minor: theater

What was your motivation to major in CS?

I first learned about coding and programming when I was in eighth grade and I’ve been hooked ever since! It seemed like a natural career path since I have always been STEM-oriented, but I’ve had several internships that really solidified my interest in computer science. Specifically, I was really interested to learn more about the ins and outs of the computer which I am finally being exposed to in “COMP 239: Computer Organization” with Professor Thomas Yeh! 

Can you describe your working relationships with CS professors?

My computer science professors have always been extremely helpful and engaging! Not only has Professor Justin Li, my adviser, been instrumental in helping me decide which computer science track was right for me, but Professor Kathryn Leonard’s special topics and directed research courses introduced me to neural networks and image recognition which was super exciting and interesting to learn! Through Professor Leonard’s course, I was able to present my research at the SACNAS conference where I got the opportunity to meet students from other colleges and universities as well as engage with industry professionals who are working in some of the biggest tech companies like Google and Disney Pixar.

There is something about researching a problem and creating a solution using nothing but your computer and your brain that keeps me coming back to computer science day after day.

Have you taken part in any academic research opportunities at Oxy?

Last year I was doing research with Professor Leonard to create a pipeline of two different Neural Networks to generate a Blum Medial Axis skeleton of an object in a natural RGB image. We are currently training a Mask-RCNN model to generate a mask for an object in a natural RGB image and hope to get results soon! I am also a year-round research and development intern at Sandia National Laboratories, where I am working in the Quantum Computer Science Department (Org. 1425) on a python-based interactive theorem proving assistant called Prove-It for the purposes of verifying the optimization of quantum hardware. Through this research, I have had the opportunity to co-author two different publications detailing our progress on Prove-It! 

What do you find most compelling about studying CS?

I find the tech world super interesting and I am always excited to learn more about how technology complements our day-to-day lives. I also find computer science to be extremely rewarding. There is something about researching a problem and then creating a solution using nothing but your computer and your brain that keeps me coming back to computer science day after day! That’s not to say that CS isn’t also very challenging, but I find the satisfaction of completing sleek code that does exactly what you want it to do is worth the work. While that is probably super “nerdy,” it is my favorite part of working on CS projects!

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in CS?

As with any other major at Oxy, I think it is important to not only remember the multitude of resources that are available to students in the CS department, but to also not be afraid to use them! My professors have been nothing but encouraging throughout my two years at Oxy, but Oxy Open Source and the SSAP tutoring are great resources as well. Oxy OS offers professional development opportunities, social events and optional projects to help build your skills and so much more!


Dyani Dillard ’22

Hometown: Fontana, CA
Major: computer science; minors: cognitive science, Black Studies

What was your motivation to major in CS?

I took my first programming course in my junior year of high school. I was fortunate to have a teacher who explained concepts in an interesting and engaging way. They inspired me to continue exploring computer science in college. Last year I took “Introduction to Cognitive Science” with Professor Justin Li and Professor Aleksandra Sherman. We learned a bit about artificial intelligence and computationally modeling the brain and I was hooked! I am currently exploring further artificial intelligence concepts in “Topics in AI” with Professor Irina Rabkina

Can you describe your working relationships with CS professors? Any standout classes you’ve taken?

The professors in the department really do want to see their students succeed. They encourage students to ask questions and attend office hours because some of the concepts can be difficult to grasp. “Computational Approaches to Cognition” with Professor Alan Knoerr is by far my favorite class I’ve taken at Oxy because not only does Professor Knoerr inspire and uplift his students, but I’ve learned how much computational thinking intersects with cognitive science!

This semester I am working on a Theory of Mind project with Professor Rabkina to create artificial intelligence (AI) agents that can play a stag-hunt game.

Have you taken part in any academic research opportunities at Oxy?

I have been involved in research with the computer science and cognitive science departments at Oxy for about a year now. I worked on a shape recognition project with Professor Kathryn Leonard to train a neural network to generate the Blum Medial Axis skeleton of a binary image and predict the number of parts necessary to represent the image. This semester I am working on a Theory of Mind project with Professor Rabkina to create artificial intelligence (AI) agents that can play a stag-hunt game. The agents in the game are being evaluated to recognize others’ intent to cooperate, essentially making decisions similar to the way people do. We want to see if AI agents think about others in the same ways that people do and if that will help them be successful at tasks that require thinking about other agents.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in CS?

Ask questions, attend office hours and find other students in your classes to work with! Connect with upperclass students who have completed a good amount of coursework for the major—there are so many subfields and disciplines in computer science and each student has a unique experience that has guided them in their own direction. Oxy Open Source is also a great resource to meet students in the department, collaborate with students on personal projects, attend workshops, and learn about research and job opportunities!


Sherwin Zhang ’22

Hometown: San Jose, CA
Majors: computer science, music composition

Can you describe any standout classes you’ve taken in the department?

Professor Justin Li (or just “Justin,” as he tells us to call him) is leading a course called “Programming Languages” where we are designing a parser and interpreter that interpretes a toy language (that Justin wrote himself). It’s really cool to get to write a program that lets you develop in a new and fictional programming language under his helpful guidance. He pays attention to students’ progress, setting up helpful meetings with us and working with our schedules to relieve our stress while still completing our projects.

Describe your senior comps research project.

For my senior comps, I am developing a revolutionary music score-writing application using a human-computer interaction approach to a mobile and desktop component working in harmony. Composers will be able to use their mobile screen in tandem with their desktop to quickly and easily write down their musical ideas in a fast, non-janky way. In the future, I hope to revolutionize the outdated score-writing industry, introducing a new generation of composers to free, accessible and powerful software.

Computer science isn’t just math, but also problem solving, creative writing and art. It is very versatile.

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

I’m hoping to become a developer for a music score writing software company and make the lives of composers better. I also aspire to teach middle and highschool students foundational programming skills and uplift the next generation by helping them discover their interests and passions. As a composer, I write for clarinet ensembles and produce video game/movie soundtracks. The liberal arts at Oxy allow me to explore this multidisciplinary intersection which is becoming a nexus of the 21st-century experience.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in computer science?

CS isn’t just math, but also problem solving, creative writing and art. It is very versatile, being used everywhere from social justice to security, from art to finance, from data collection to data analysis, plus robotics and exploration, video and sound, smartphones and transportation. It’s part of everything. If you’re interested in helping people, CS is a field in dire need of professional and hard workers like you. If you just want to make a fat stack of cash and be able to pursue other pleasures in life, software may be a path for you as well. I highly recommend just jumping into it; learn a programming language (resources at Oxy and everywhere online!), create an app, meet other smart programmers and start a business. It’s the wild west of the 21st century. Someone, somewhere, will need a programmer.


Tammie Oh ’21

Hometown: Northridge, CA
Major: computer science

What was your motivation to major in computer science?

I actually failed my first computer science exam and wanted to drop out of the class. But a classmate encouraged me to stay in the course and try to really understand the logic of the problems rather than giving up. After pushing through multiple all-nighters and hours of coding, I was able to get a really great grade in the class. The satisfaction that I got from solving these difficult problems led to my decision to major in CS.

Can you describe your working relationships with CS professors? Any standout classes you’ve taken?

I definitely take many classes with Professor Celia Chen, who has been a great professor and mentor for me. She teaches many concepts that are taught in the real world, such as mobile applications, natural language processing and web development. My favorite class with her was “Full Stack Web Development,” where we were able to create our own websites!

Can you describe your senior comps project?

My senior comprehensive project was a mobile application (Android) focused on health and weight loss called OxyNutrition. Similar to MyFitnessPal, the goal was to create a calorie-tracking application using foods specifically provided at Occidental in order to encourage students to keep track of the foods they consume on a daily basis.

The CS department at Oxy ... is ‘rigorous but not competitive.’ Yes, the material is difficult and requires a lot of time and effort, but the community is really supportive.

What do you find most compelling about studyig CS?

Prior to Oxy, I had never taken a computer science course, so it’s always cool to learn how computers and code come together to produce the technology that we use every day. I think it's really cool how the code I type translates into the 0's and 1's, and how I’m able to view the different websites and apps on my devices.

What is the vibe of the CS department?

What I really like about the CS department at Oxy is that I feel that it’s ‘rigorous but not competitive.’ Yes, the material is difficult and requires a lot of time and effort, but the community is really supportive. It's common for students to study together and help each other with difficult material.

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy?

After college, I will move to San Diego to work as a software engineer for a defense contractor company. I think my time at Oxy has taught me how to collaborate with others, but also to really push myself to face challenges head-on.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in CS?

It's definitely challenging for most people to learn computer science because it's a very different style of critical thinking. But if you enjoy solving puzzles and challenging yourself, or just love technology in general, then I think CS is a great major. It's also versatile, in that if you don't necessarily want to code or be a software engineer, you can incorporate different fields in your work (ie product managers, tech recruiters, data scientists).


Joey Rose ’22

Hometown: Portland, OR
Major: computer science; minor: mathematics

What was your motivation to major in CS? Was there a specific inspirational moment or experience?

Funny enough, I never had an interest in computer science until I took a class on it as a first-year at Oxy. On the first day of this class, which I decided to take on a whim, I was shocked by the welcoming atmosphere, engaging discussions and the things computers could do! My inspirational moment was seeing a simple program display the first 100 million integers on the screen in sub-second succession. As someone who’s always been fascinated by the unknown, I was deeply intrigued by how this was possible, and wondered why it took me so long to be exposed to it.

Can you describe your working relationships with CS professors? Any standout classes you’ve taken?

As I’ve grown more involved in my studies and in the computer science community, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know the CS professors more. It’s been a wonderful experience, and interesting to watch develop over time. All of the courses I’ve taken have been intriguing, rigorous and valuable, though I believe “Data Structures” stands out as the class where I experienced the most growth.

What do you find most compelling about studying CS?

CS knowledge unlocks the ability to accomplish large-scale social good when paired with other disciplines. Furthermore, the barrier of entry to apply what is learned within the classroom is incredibly low, allowing for limitless experimentation!


CS knowledge unlocks the ability to accomplish large-scale social good when paired with other disciplines.

What is the vibe of the CS department?

Friendly and community-based. Most professors ask students to call them by their first names, and even frequent the weekly social hour hosted by Oxy Open Source! The entire department is extremely accommodating, and often incorporates student feedback into their decision-making processes.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in CS?

Try it out! If you decide to stick with it, I recommend getting to know your peers, using the resources provided by Oxy Open Source and stopping by professors’ office hours. If you realize you don’t want to study CS anymore, the skills you will have learned will be highly transferable to your future endeavors. 


Layal Bata ’21

Hometown: Amman, Jordan / Orinda, CA
Majors: computer science, cognitive science

What was your motivation to major in computer science?  Can you describe your working relationships with professors in the department?

If I’m honest, I wasn’t considering computer science at all when I came to Oxy because I didn't think it would be something I would like or be good at. In “Intro to Cognitive Science”, co-taught by computer science department chair Professor Kathryn Leonard, I was introduced to how fascinating computer science can be. From there, Professor Leonard encouraged me to take a computer science class, and I ended up in “Mathematical Foundations of Computer Science.” She encouraged me, inspired me and helped me to believe that computer science is a much richer, more diverse field than I originally had perceived it to be, and my liberal arts point of view was not a detriment but an advantage.

Computer science teaches useful skills for every field of study and every job. Oxy’s department very much celebrates this idea.

What do you find most compelling about studying computer science?

Computer science teaches useful skills for every field of study and every job. Oxy’s department very much celebrates this idea, and bases class projects and examples in contexts outside of what is expected. I love that computer science is seen as more than a standalone concept, and is connected to any future I choose going forward.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in computer science?

Build your skills early on! When you have the time, practice coding outside of class. Computer science is a skills-based field, and not giving yourself the time and space to develop those skills could make excelling in the field harder down the line.

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