Grad Cohort 2017 Conference connects, empowers women in computing

Originally posted on Penn State News

Jennifer Cifelli

WASHINGTON, D.C. — While the field of computer science has been growing exponentially, companies and universities are eagerly searching for women to fill these crucial roles. To help meet this demand, nine graduate students from the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) recently gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Grad Cohort Workshop sponsored by the Computing Research Association for Women (CRA-W). The conference aims to increase the ranks of senior women in computing-related studies and research by building and mentoring communities of women during their graduate studies.

Participants who attended the two-day workshop met with senior technology researchers and professionals. Participants heard tips on navigating their graduate education and gained relevant insight on topics ranging from networking and mentorship to research and dissertations.

Instituted in 2004, the workshop is for women in their first three years of graduate studies at any American institution, and participants are reimbursed for fees and travel expenses by the CRA-W Grand Cohort Program. The event is funded by the National Science Foundation, corporate sponsors and academic institutions, including Penn State’s College of IST.

This year, workshop attendees heard from professionals working in academia and industry, who discussed options available in both sectors for technology graduates. Moojan Ghafurian, a doctoral student in IST who attended this year’s conference, said it “helped with networking, connecting with people in my research area, learning from others’ experiences, and about advantages and disadvantages of working for academia versus industry.”

Xinye Zheng, doctoral student in IST, attended the workshop on her adviser’s recommendation. Zheng attended with the intention of networking and building contacts in the computing field. “I heard about others’ experiences and got advice from esteemed female researchers about choosing between a career of industry and academia, how to get my research work published, and how to balance life and study,” said Zheng. “These experiences are the most important things I learned from the conference.”

The graduate students who attended the conference agreed that building strong mentoring relationships and peer networks were among the most compelling reasons for attending, and helpful to them as women in a traditionally male-dominated field.

“It’s very important to network with women in computing,” said Haining Zhu, doctoral student and research assistant in IST. “When I meet so many women in the same shoes as me, I feel we are closely related; I feel more confident pursuing a career in computing.” Zhu said her lab-mate first mentioned the workshop, and said it was “a great opportunity for women in computing to get connected.”

“As a minority in [the field], we face similar issues in research, life and future careers. This conference offers us a platform to communicate and share common experiences,” said Zheng. “During my first year, I was the only female in my lab. At the CRA-W conference, I joined the lecture about how to balance life and research, and talked to other female researchers about this topic. I feel very happy I have other people to talk to and [can get] advice from more experienced female researchers.”

The 2017 workshop attendees were Xinye Zheng, Ying Xu, Haining Zhu, Moojan Ghafurian, Jiawei Chen, Stephanie Winkler, Samantha Weirman, Jomara Binda and Morvareed Bidgoli.