Kyle Rector, a senior double majoring in computer science and electrical and computer engineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship and an Anita Borg Google Memorial Scholarship. Rector, who will graduate in June, has been accepted at University of Washington (UW) where she will pursue a PhD in computer science.
The NSF fellowship gives Rector an annual living stipend of $30,000 and $10,500 for tuition for three years. The $10,000 Google scholarships were given to only 20 undergraduate students nationally.
“This has been a rewarding year,” said Rector, who is in her fifth year of studies at Oregon State. “I’ve worked really hard for a long time; it’s been a lot of sweat and tears.”
Indeed. Rector has been working steadily on her path since high school in Clackamas, Oregon. She had always loved math and decided to major in electrical engineering after she participated in a pre-college program at MIT in the summer after her junior year in high school and learned about different engineering disciplines. “I liked that there were practical applications to math,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Rector went to MIT on a Navy ROTC scholarship. But after a month, she decided that it wasn’t a good fit for her and came back to Oregon where she worked for a full year as an AmeriCorps volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. “I knew I would go back to school,” she said. “I missed school — including the homework and exams!”
OSU has been a much better fit for her. “It is by far the best decision for school for me. It’s a good engineering school and there’s a great family atmosphere here. I like that I can come to the Kelley Engineering Center and see lots of people I know.”
In the summers since graduating from high school, Rector has had internships at Intel and Hewlett-Packard, and research internships at University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon University. Rector will have yet another internship at Google in Seattle (unrelated to her Google scholarship) this summer.
Much of Rector’s success has been due to her mentor, OSU computer science professor Margaret Burnett. The two were matched up during Rector’s freshman year as part of OSU Engineering’s Women and Minorities Tektronix Scholars program. Rector was intrigued by Burnett’s research in gender HCI (human-computer interaction), which finds ways to make software more accessible for both males and females.
Rector’s work with Burnett also influenced her to add computer science to her electrical and computer engineering major. “At first, I didn’t want anything to do with computer science. But I was drawn in by Dr. Burnett’s project,” said Rector. “I learned that computer science is not just about syntax and coding. We can make a difference in people’s lives by developing applications such as those used on mobile phones in countries that don’t have a lot of access to computers.”
Though the two were supposed to be paired up only during winter and spring terms during Rector’s freshman year, Burnett was impressed enough that she continued working with Rector, supporting her with research funding. Burnett called Rector a superstar. “Kyle has been doing everything right. I’m not surprised that people are taking notice of her wonderful capabilities, offering her scholarships, awards, and fellowships to graduate school,” she said.
Burnett wasn’t the only one who was impressed. “As a freshman, Kyle gave a presentation to Tektronix about the gender HCI project and just ‘wowed’ them,” said Burnett. “They got very excited about what she was doing.”
Ellen Momsen, director of the Women and Minorities in Engineering program said the funding from Tektronix for research experiences for first year students is invaluable. “Like Kyle, the opportunity to participate in research has been a life-changing experience for many students.”
Though Burnett would without hesitation offer Rector a position in her graduate program at OSU, Burnett says she encourages her students “to go wherever you can be the best you can be.”
Burnett expects Rector to hit the ground running at UW because, said Burnett, that’s what she trains her students to do. “Kyle’s basically been treated like a graduate student, so she knows what matters in a research program. She knows what academic papers should emphasize, understands methodologies for doing research, and knows how to be part of a team. She understands the culture of graduate school.”
Rector hasn’t yet decided what she’ll do after she gets her PhD. “I don’t have any specific plans yet. I’m leaving the door open.”
Whatever it is, she’ll be successful at it.
Update: Read about Rector’s research at the University of Washington on "eyes-free technology" in Scientific American.