All posts by niaja

Writing a Strong Statement of Purpose

Writing a Strong Statement of PurposeIt’s the time of year when seniors are
graduate school applications and finalizing where they will submit applications. The application process can be an overwhelming process as students try desperately to stand out in a sea of strong applicants. However, for many students, there is little guidance available on what a school is actually looking for and what aspects of their undergraduate experiences to highlight. In many cases, the student’s only prior guidepost is their success with their undergraduate application. However, duplicating that process is unlikely to achieve the desired result. This is especially evident when it comes to writing a strong statement of purpose for a graduate school application.

The statement of purpose is the one place in the application where a student can talk about themselves as a person (and not classes they took or jobs they have had). They also get to use their own words and not rely on someone else to sell their best features, as in their recommendations. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to to fall prey to common mistakes. Here are 5 tips to writing a strong statement of purpose.

Focus on your research

Contrary to your undergraduate essay, your statement of purpose should not focus on your extracurricular activities or how well-rounded you are. Your statement of purpose should focus on your skills as a researcher, what your interests are (in terms of conducting research), and who you would like to do research for at the school you are applying to.

Highlight several areas where you would like to work

As you discuss where you are interested in doing research, you should list several (2 or 3) labs and/or professors with whom you are interested in working if you are admitted. You should explain why these labs/professors interest you and what you think you could contribute to their research. Picking only one limits your opportunities, especially if that lab/professor is not taking on new students (you should think very carefully about applying to a school solely because of one lab or professor). Conversely, by listing more than three, you appear unfocused. Interested in more than 3? If you gain admission, you will not be restricted to the labs or professors included in your statement of purpose.

Don’t be cliché

The people evaluating your application have read hundreds (perhaps thousands) prior to reading yours.  It is vitally important to avoid cliché statements. Your readers will  have definitely heard them all before and these statements will not help you stand out. For example,  “I knew I wanted to be an engineer because I loved taking things apart.” Almost all engineers have had this experience. If you want to highlight this aspect of your background, focus instead on a specific project and how it shaped your experience and future plans.

If there is weak point in your application, explain it briefly

If you are concerned about a weak point in your application, use a sentence or two to justify it in your statement of purpose. A common concern is GPA. Occasionally, students struggle during the early part of their college years, but strengthen as they approach graduation. If this is true for you, you might choose to characterize it as an “adjustment period” and describe how going through that period has strengthened you. For example, you might highlight your major GPA to show how you excelled in those core classes.

Check, double-check, and triple-check

Make sure to have your final draft reviewed by at least two people for grammatical mistakes and aspects that are not clear – select your reviewers for their ruthlessness and honesty, not because they are your friends, supporters, or relatives. One very common mistake is applying to school A, but having school B in your letter (or referencing labs / professors from another school). Not waiting until the last minute to prepare your statement of purpose will also help avoid careless mistakes made by rushing.

We hope these tips are helpful. If you are applying for graduate school and would like more information or tips, please let us know.

i-Trek Spotlight: Imani Palmer

i-Trek’s Intrepid Webmaster: Facing New Opportunities and Challenges at Los Alamos

Imani Palmer is the webmaster for i-Trek. She focuses on website design and development. She is currently a second year PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a focus in security. She also serves as a research assistant in the Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL).

Interestingly, as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Imani did not focus on research. It wasn’t something that she even imagined she would ever pursue. That came later, when someone asked: “Why not?”  What draws Imani to the i-Trek mission is her desire to encourage undergraduates to pursue the research opportunities that she herself did not avail herself of during her undergraduate years.

In a friendly telephone conversation I interviewed Imani about her studies and expected career trajectory.

Q:  So, Imani tell me, how did you get on this computer science/cyber security path?

A:  It was a pretty direct path from undergraduate school to graduate school. Funny, when I entered college I had dreams about becoming a doctor. After biology class I decided neuro science medicine was not something I wanted to do. Or at least I wasn’t committed to the long intense years of study. I was decent in math and science so I opted to major in computer science. I never programmed before. I didn’t have black or female mentors to guide me. I charted my course. Oh, and I prayed a lot.

But even in college I didn’t necessarily think I would pursue a PhD in computer science.

Q: So what changed?

A: I had an internship during my junior year at Lockheed Martin. My dad worked at Lockheed Martin in systems engineering. So during my internship I looked for errors and created a program to detect errors. That was boring, seriously. But this is where I discovered that I could make a successful career out of being web master. Even more important I learned my advanced education could be paid for almost in its entirety through grants and scholarship if I pursued computer science. It was a no brainer. Go to graduate school and focus on computer science.  

Q: Where do you want to be in 5 years?

A: Graduate and on my way to becoming rich.

Q:  What’s your passion?

A:   Website/computer security. I am interested in those efforts to protect our national government from hacking whether done domestically or internationally. Essentially, I would like to focus my efforts on helping people.

Q:   What are the obstacles you face in achieving your career goals?

A:    Understanding multi-cultural dynamics in the workforce. Many of the colleagues I have had both within the university and out in the workplace are foreign nationals and typically men. Women of color, specifically African American women, are even more under-represented. There are a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what I as a woman of color can achieve. It’s not so much that I function in a hostile work environment. Rather, I find myself in the position of disproving people’s false assumptions just by being there and doing good work. Again, it’s not really about harassment. It’s having to remind others that hey, you know what, I know what I’m doing and you know it too, so stop the nonsense, already.

Luckily, I have had terrific mentor, advisors and supervisors who have been very supportive and ready to give me a chance when I demonstrate my willingness to accept the challenge.

Q:  This past summer you had an opportunity to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in Los Alamos, New Mexico. According to Wikipedia it is one of two laboratories in the United States where classified work towards the design of nuclear weapons is undertaken.

So you were there among physicists, engineers, chemists, material scientists, mathematicians, biologists, geoscientists and fellow computational science colleagues. That’s impressive. What was the experience like for you?

A:  It was a three month project. I was part of team of 10 people from different schools both nationally and internationally. Our task was to develop better security defenses

Q:  What did you like about the experience? What were the expectations of the work, the goals and the experience?

A:  Flexible hours. I also worked with a mentor and we met weekly to discuss the target goals and objectives. I guess overall what I loved about the experience was the sense of collaboration. It was a collegial environment where we bounced ideas off each other and everyone had something to bring to the table. People were open-minded. It was a great time with great people.

Q: Do you have anything else to add about your Los Alamos experience? What was New Mexico like?

A:  Oh, I think people in New Mexico are way nicer than folks up North – at least relative to where I am. Professionally, the research process was more flexible. Even the physical work space is designed to allow people explore, walk around and interact with each other. Like I said before, the atmosphere is very collegial. Also my work mentors, advisors and fellow colleagues tended to be younger. In my internship group we were 3 women, 2 blacks and 1 international student from England.

Q:  What was the worst part of the trip?

A:  Being in New Mexico.

Q: Wait a minute. Didn’t you just finish extolling the virtues of Los Alamos?

A: Well, the truth is there is no diversity beyond the laboratory. In the actual town I stood out. Plus trying to find beauty and hair care products was nearly impossible.  

Q:  How has this experience changed you?

A:  I learned that I enjoy working in a research lab. I think I would like to try a corporate environment, say for example Bank of America . I do have an internship with Intel in May 2015.  I applied early in the fall of 2014 and received the acceptance in November 2014.

Q: Congratulations on landing your internship. How does your Los Alamos internship demonstrate the ideals of i-trek where you turn research into empowerment and knowledge?

A: It helped me discover viable ways to use programming as a career and as a way to empower people. A lot of minorities in STEM tend to steer in the direction of the health sciences. They don’t perceive the opportunities that are available in computer science at an advanced level. I am hoping my experience encourages people to take a second look at computer science.

Computer science is challenging. And while there are opportunities to work in friendly and collegial places. That’s not always the case. It can be alienating if you are a woman and/or a person of color. But again, you just have to be open-minded and have a positive attitude. Many people who are in computer science at the advanced level majored in programming either in college or had a great deal of exposure at the middle, junior high and high school level. What I have learned is that even if you are someone who did not have those advantages, you can still catch up and be successful. I did not have programming experience prior to beginning my graduate studies, and I’m doing okay. If I can do it, others can too.

Students Hack Away At Cyber Security in NYU Competition

By Tim Wright

Last Friday, Montgomery College hosted in partnership with New York University a cyber security competition among 45 high school students from Poolesville High School and Blair High School. Each year, NYU invites teams of students from across the country and abroad to use coding and cyber forensics to solve a murder mystery. This mystery is related to the hacking of a major company. Students from the competition have a chance to win a $14,000 scholarship to the University.

NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering sent clues to the cell phones of the students to help them solve the mystery. The students then had to use the knowledge they acquired in the classroom in order to decode the mystery and solve the murder.

Usually, the competition is not held on a local level. However, Mark Estep, head of the computer science department at Poolesville High, thought it would be a great idea to extend the completion locally, so that those who didn’t get invited to the competitive finals at NYU would have a chance to experience the competition. “We spoke directly after his students won. Mark and I were talking about reaching out to others that didn’t make it,” said Joel Fernandez, professor of digital forensics at NYU.

Amy Crowley, who works at Montgomery College office of Academic Initiatives, explained that she wants more schools to participate in the program because it encourages students to develop their skills in an area which carries many job openings in the DC metro area. “We want to make kids aware that it could be fun, but you can also make a career out of this.”

The winners were the 16-year-old students Suriya Kandaswamy, Christopher Look, and Cherru Zou. They each won a set of Beats by Dre Headphones.

Cyber security is a prominent field within the STEM community, and hopefully the Cyber Security Competition will bring attention to the field encourage students to develop skills that will be useful to them in college and in the job market.

The Work of Dr. Guttag

By Indira Nouduri

John GuttagWith the ease and availability of technology, we are surrounded by an overwhelming amount of data at our fingertips.  As a result, we can ask an even more overwhelming number of questions regarding this data than ever before. Although the scientific method (forming a hypothesis and collecting empirical data to prove or disprove that statement) is still a respected model of research inquiry, some investigators are finding it more productive to move away from this model and ask questions like “what is the trend in a given situation?” or “what is the correlation between attribute A and attribute B in a given situation?”

One of the leading researchers who popularized this new approach is Dr. John V. Guttag, Ph.D. He is the former Head of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at MIT, a Fellowship recipient of the Association of Computing Machinery, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Some of his most notable projects deal with applications of computer science to medicine,  investigating trends and correlations of causation. His past research includes chronic seizure detection using EEG data through non-invasive electrodes as well as studying the incidence of death within 90 days in patients with non-ST elevated acute coronary syndrome.

What is unique about Dr. Guttag’s research projects is that they use traditional engineering tools to gather data about medicine while, at the same time, addressing broader themes that a traditional scientific method approach might completely overlook. The unconventional approach of finding trends within the data outside of the investigative question sets Dr. Guttag apart and illustrates how this new approach of moving beyond the scientific method can prove to be more applicable to the questions and problems of today.

medicine and thermometerRather than having to do a separate experiment and collect new data to investigate a correlation between variables in a new situation, a study becomes applicable to more than just one investigative question by collecting a comprehensive set of data and then looking for trends and relationships within it. This creative approach has proved especially productive in medicine where patient records are meticulously kept but often unutilized. In one of Dr. Guttag’s corporate Continuing Medical Education (CME) talks, he mentions how databases of medical records can become the new platform for conducting research. By harnessing the power of Big Data tools, Dr. Guttag believes that valuable correlations can be drawn from historical patient information to better serve current patients undergoing similar procedures. Best of all, since all the data are readily available, this entire investigation can be carried out at a fraction of the cost of a new research study.

Dr. Guttag’s journey to MIT began with a background in Liberal Arts. He earned an A.B. in English and an M.S. in Applied Mathematics from Brown University, followed by a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Toronto. Many scholars today seem to agree that focusing exclusively on STEM is not enough anymore. Adding in an “A” for “Arts” (and thus changing STEM to STEAM) is critical to develop skills to harness the power of one’s imagination to solve problems. This change symbolizes the importance of the human attributes to scientific inquiry that separate us from machines. Mechanical processes are valued for their accuracy, predictability, timeliness and generally cost-effective results.  But we should not forget that purely mechanical processes completely ignore the human aspects of research and problem-solving — creativity, making multidisciplinary links, utilizing the past to improve upon the present, and so much more.

The future will present challenges that are too big to be solved simply by automated analysis of accurate and detailed historical data.  If Dr. Guttag had not made the “artistic” leap to envision that a tiny electrode could work as a EEG sensor, it seems unlikely that he would have ever discovered that seizure activity is present in the brain more than 7 seconds before any physical signs of seizure are evident.  This type of “out of the box” thinking is innately human and the capacity for it exists in all of us. Those with a background in liberal arts and humanities often have the training to tap into it and harness the “steam” of their imaginations.