Women’s History Month CWIT Spotlight: Rachel Cohen

March is Women’s History Month!

Three  years ago Women’s History Month’s national theme was “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” The theme honored generations of women who throughout American history have used their intelligence, imagination, sense of wonder, and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions to the STEM fields. At UMBC we honored this theme by partnering with the Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) to feature some of their amazing students participating in technology in the engineering and information technology fields. While the theme for Women’s History Month changes every year, we have come to love the tradition in spotlighting the stories of UMBC’s CWIT women. So with that, we are honored to bring you the 3rd Annual CWIT Showcase in honor of Women’s History Month.

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Rachel Cohen
Computer Science
CWIT  Scholar

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Meet Rachel Cohen! A CWIT Scholar and computer science major.

Describe what sparked your interest STEM and the journey to choosing your major.

When I first decided to attend UMBC as a freshman, I originally declared my major as biochemistry. In high school, I had always excelled in my science and math classes and knew that I wanted to major in something that would allow me to hone in on those skills. After taking the gateway biology and chemistry courses, I came to the realization that I wasn’t exceedingly passionate about what I was studying, so I decided to switch my major to computer science. Having no prior experience in the subject, I was a bit hesitant to make such a drastic switch. I knew that computer science was a prevalent field with a great number of job opportunities, so I knew that if I were able to develop the skills needed to get the computer science degree, I would have a successful future ahead of me. Since switching to computer science after freshman year, I haven’t looked back!

Tell us about an internship, research experience or project that you are proud of.

This past summer, I was accepted into the Cyber Summer Program, the DoD’s outreach effort to recruit computer science students from around the country. I was able to work on mission critical problems with senior cybersecurity professionals, which was a pretty awesome experience.

Who are your role models in the engineering or IT field? How have their stories influenced your educational or career goals.

Megan Smith is definitely someone whose career path I admire. For those who haven’t heard of Smith, she is the current (and first female) Chief Technology Officer of the United States. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from MIT in mechanical engineering. She was the vice president of business development at Google and vice president of Google[x], a semi-secret research and development facility created by the Internet giant. One of the things I admire most about Smith is her involvement in Google’s $50 million dollar investment in their Made with Code initiative. Smith explained that Made with Code was formed to encourage young girls to get involved with basic coding projects and find information about strong female role models. Smith said, “We found out that one of the things that happens with high school girls is they sometimes get discouraged from doing code because no one is encouraging them…nobody’s telling them why it’s so impactful on the world. You couldn’t see a lot of heroes.” Someone like Smith, who has had ample experience in private industry and is now serving our country as the first female CTO, is someone who I aspire to be like. Her strong technical background has allowed her to advance into important leadership roles, which is something that I hope to do one day.

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Rachel and Dr. Hrabowski

Women often face subtle comments (microaggressions) or people who tell them they can’t/shouldn’t be in these majors which are often dominated by men. What would you say to those women or what advice do you have?

The issue of gender disparity in tech is something that is very evident and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. I’ve experienced moments, both at work and at school, where I’ve heard comments made about me that may (or may not) be attributed to my gender. I tend to not let those kinds of things affect me as I try and remember that I, just like everyone else, am where I am due of my qualifications and accomplishments. I am no less of a computer scientist because of my gender. I would say the most common thing that I experience is the feeling of being underrepresented as a woman in my field. For me, it’s important to bond with other women who have had these experiences too, so I would recommend finding a support group of peers as a way to gain connections and advice. That way, you’ll be able to say “yes, I’m the only woman in the room most of the time, but I’m a part of this group of awesome people who has experienced it too, so I know I’m not alone in this.”

With viral hashtags like #DistractinglySexy or #AddWomen and #Ilooklikeanengineer, women in STEM are using social media as a tool for activism and creating awareness about women’s representation in STEM. What’s your favorite example of women in STEM supporting and empowering themselves and other women to change the narrative about women in STEM?

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Rachel at the awesome Grace Hopper Conference which is the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.

One of my favorite examples of women empowering themselves and other women to change the narrative about women in STEM is model Karlie Kloss’ experience with coding. Kloss, who is most well known for being a high fashion model, left her role as a Victoria’s Secret Angel to pursue computer science at New York University. While she doesn’t have a typical tech background, she had become a public advocate for girls in computer science, and together with Code.org has donated money to fund a scholarship for young girls interested in coding. She’s started the hashtag #KodeWithKarlie to encourage young girls to post photos of themselves coding on social media. With over 4 million followers on Instagram, she has such a large platform to inform her audience that computer science is an important field not just comprising of the stereotypical geeky, male computer scientist. The fact that Karlie, a young woman who many might not have thought would be interested in or good at programming, is becoming such a strong proponent of the field makes me really excited about the future. Check out this video Karlie made with code.org to see her discuss her newfound passion for coding.

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The Center for Women In Technology (CWIT) is dedicated to increasing the representation of women in the creation of technology in the engineering and information technology fields. CWIT efforts begin with nurturing a strong group of Scholars, grow to building community resources for other women in these majors, extend to fostering a healthy gender climate and ITE pedagogy in College of Engineering and Information Technology (COEIT) departments, and finally expand into outreach efforts to increase interest in technical careers. A successful program for female-friendly engineering and information technology education at UMBC will help make UMBC a destination for women (and men) interested in technical careers and serve as a national model for other universities. To read previous Women’s History Month CWIT spotlights, click here

To learn more about the experience of women in STEM, check out the American Association of University Women’s report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) which presents in-depth yet accessible profiles of eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers — including stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities — that continue to block women’s progress in STEM.

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For more information about Women’s History events and happenings, visit the Women’s Center myUMBC group page.

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