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UT Dallas CS Student Success Spotlight: Courtney Erbes

Hi Courtney! Can you please tell me about yourself? What is your story?

I was born in the heart of Silicon Valley and raised by software engineers. This created a tech-heavy atmosphere for me in which to grow up and helped inspire my love for problem-solving and computers. My own love for biology inspired me to initially pursue a Biomedical Engineering degree at UT Dallas, but I switched to a computer science major with a neuroscience minor as I found myself drawn to data science and bio-inspired computing.

I understand that you are graduating in the spring and going to work for Hulu. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your journey applying to work for Hulu and what you will be doing there?

In the fall of 2018, I was at the career fair for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) when I applied for a summer 2019 Software Engineering internship at Hulu. The interview process consisted of a coding challenge and a technical interview, and luckily, I did well enough that they offered me the internship! By the end of the summer, the internship turned into a full-time return offer for a software engineering position in the Hulu living room app department, and I hope to move to their data science department once I am at Hulu.

So, you earned a BS in CS and received the best CS Student award. I understand that you then fast-tracked to the MS program. What made you decide to go for a master’s?

I was not originally planning to go for a master’s, but I received a lot of encouragement from professors, especially from Dr. Balaji Raghavachari and Dr. Janell Straach. They saw the potential in me to pursue graduate school, and they gave me a lot of advice regarding the fast-track program at UT Dallas.

Can you tell us a little more about the fast track program and why you chose that program?

I love to learn, and by the time I saw the end of my undergraduate career nearing, I knew I wasn’t quite ready to leave academia. The fast track program gave me the opportunity to finish my bachelor’s degree while getting a head start on my master’s degree at the same time. The program is specifically designed to allow participants to earn a master’s degree in only one year after finishing your bachelor’s degree, so you can get your master’s done quickly before diving into your career.

Do you have any study tips or tips in general for students who want to be better students and make the most of their college experience?

There’s no better way to deeply learn a topic than by teaching it. As a tutor at the Computer Science Mentor Center (CSMC), I was challenged to continually examine and address topics in multiple ways since different people learn in different ways. Teaching makes you look at things through new eyes and gives you an appreciation for problem-solving from multiple perspectives. With this in mind, I recommend students meet with a study partner or group to teach and quiz each other. This allows for a more collaborative and engaging study environment, a learning technique from which I greatly benefited.

During your time at UT Dallas, what were some of your fondest memories, and what will you miss the most?

Some of my favorite moments are when, along with my coworkers, I helped tutor students at the CSMC. I made a lot of close friends at the CSMC, and I loved helping students reach that “Ah-ha!” moment of understanding. I will definitely miss the CSMC, especially Prof. Jason Smith’s crazy ties!

Why did you decide to study at UT Dallas for Computer Science?

I originally came to UT Dallas to study Biomedical Engineering. Taking the AP Computer Science (CS) course in high school made me think I didn’t like CS, but after taking CS classes with Dr. Charles Shields and Prof. Jason Smith during my freshman year, I realized how much fun CS can be and how there is a limitless amount to learn. The professors I came in contact with, along with Dr. Ivor Page, director of the CS honors program, helped me see that computer science is where I belong.

What is your favorite field of computer science, and why?

Data science is my favorite field in computer science because having a great foundation in dependable data and analytics is a stepping stone into applied artificial intelligence.

Describe your experience at UT Dallas.

My experience at UT Dallas has been defined by the people I’ve met and from whom I’ve learned. I’ve met many lifelong friends and intelligent professors that have helped guide me to where I am now.

Were you a part of any clubs?

During my time at UT Dallas, I have been a part of the Rotaract Club and the Artificial Intelligence Society (AIS).

I know you attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Can you tell us about your experience attending the conference and why do you think it is important to participate in events like these?

I have had the opportunity to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) twice during my academic career. The first time I attended, I was in my first semester of Computer Science after switching from Biomedical Engineering. Before I attended, I was intimidated by suddenly being in classes where I was the only woman. When I returned from GHC, any doubt I had of the path I chose was gone. The word “celebration” in the conference title is a great indicator of why it’s such an impactful event. As an attendee, I felt truly celebrated and was in awe of the accomplishments all the other women there had achieved. It was encouraging to know those women used to be in my shoes, and I was determined to one day be able to inspire other women just as I was inspired.

Did you always know that working in technology was what you wanted to do? Women in the field of technology are definitely in the minority, so what made you interested in getting a Computer Science degree?

Even though I did not initially want to major in Computer Science, I have always wanted to work in technology. Because I was raised in a tech-minded household, I never felt deterred from technology. However, being the only woman in my high school’s AP Computer Science class after the other women dropped the class shook me a little. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college when I realized how natural Computer Science was for me, and I decided I wouldn’t let my nerves deter me from doing something I could potentially love doing.

What job did you dream of when you were a kid?

I dreamed of being a veterinarian or a doctor as a kid. This love for biology can be seen in my academic career as I shifted from Biomedical Engineering to Computer Science with a Neuroscience minor.

What advice would you give to women looking to break into the field of computer technology?

Don’t be afraid to seek out new research or project opportunities. This advice applies to all people looking to break into computer science because of the more hands-on experience you have, the more you will learn and refine your knowledge. Additionally, exposing yourself to new opportunities can lead to new mentors who can give further advice and guidance.

Is there one piece of advice you wish somebody gave you at the beginning of your college career?

You don’t have to wait for opportunities to come your way. Make your own, and be proactive!

In your academic or work career, were there any mentors who have helped you grow along the way?

I played the harp as a part of my high school orchestra and had two amazing harp teachers, Ms. Yumiko and Ms. Park. They taught me a lot about persistence and how to break down a huge task, such as learning a new song, into manageable pieces.

What advice would you have for those who may not feel like they can advocate for themselves and/or don’t have a solid support system for varying circumstances?

Participating in clubs and organizations helped me build my support system and find lifelong friends. Things can be going crazy in life, but attending a club meeting can let you press pause on everything else and focus on something new.

Can you tell me about a role model who has inspired you over your career and life?

A role model I’ve had throughout my life, as well as career, is my mom, Jamie Erbes. She’s done everything in tech from starting her own company to being a director at Google. I have been lucky to have her as a source of advice and to see her achieve success despite the adversities she has faced.

So, how do you think you have grown since starting college?

My critical thinking skills and patience have definitely improved. The classes that most helped with this growth were Advanced Algorithm Design and Analysis and Dr. Gopal Gupta‘s Computational Logic class. Recursive thinking and algorithm design aren’t simple tasks, but with lots of time and practice, your brain adapts to thinking in new, abstract ways. Additionally, dealing with large amounts of data can take a large amount of time. Patience is key if you want to get into data science!

Finally, where do you see yourself in five years?

The dream is to live in Seattle with two dogs and to lead a small team of engineers working on a data analytics platform!


ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT

The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 3,315 bachelors-degree students, more than 1,110 master’s students, 165 Ph.D. students,  52 tenure-track faculty members, and 44 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2019. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.