Theresa Mai

Theresa Mai received the 2019 Waldo-Cummings Outstanding Student Award from Oregon State University. Photo by Gale Sumida.

Theresa Mai envisioned her first year at Oregon State University as a quiet time for adjusting to college.

But when she arrived on campus and saw the opportunities available to her as a computer science major, she dived right in. In addition to taking on an artificial intelligence research project, she connected with some inspiring mentors and was admitted to the Honors College. 

Mai’s head-first approach is paying off. In 2019, she was recognized with the Waldo-Cummings Outstanding Student Award. Among the most prestigious honors bestowed by the university, the award recognizes her personal and professional accomplishments, as well as her academic achievements.

Growing up, Mai knew she liked engineering. She loved the logic involved and enjoyed finding solutions to problems.

“But I kind of ignored computer science, because I didn’t think of myself as a computer person,” she said.

Her interest in computer science was piqued, however, when she visited a technology company in Portland with her robotics class during junior year of high school.

“They have a lab where people get to come in and try out different tech. That got me really interested, because I always want to be more on the people side of things,” she said. “I started to wonder how we can make technology easier for people to use, especially for those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.”

At Oregon State, Mai joined the OSU STEM Leaders Program, which aims to increase the diversity and success of undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines. Graduate student mentors provided Mai with valuable advice and helped her persevere through the stresses that accompany the first year of college.

“I would occasionally freak out and think, ‘Is this what I want to do? Should I change my major?’” she said. “They were there to comfort me.”

Mai also found an influential mentor through the program when she met Margaret Burnett, Distinguished Professor of computer science. Mai found herself drawn to Burnett’s research on human-computer interaction and inclusiveness in computer science and joined her research team focused on explainable artificial intelligence.

The team is investigating the decision process of AI systems. Ultimately, they want to find a way for AI to reveal its decision-making steps to its users.

“If your AI is not working the way you want, you’re left wondering why. So, we’re finding out ways to make AI systems more explainable to the people who are using them,” she said. “I love the research we’re doing right now. I love being able to make technology more accessible.”

Mai is excited about the opportunity to do a thesis as part of the Honors College, possibly exploring computer science education. 

“I think my biggest success so far is just really getting out there and doing more than I expected,” she said.

Burnett can attest to Mai’s growth and drive.

“Theresa went from helping us with a few small details of our work to heading up a new empirical study with human subjects, in which she took the lead in designing, fine-tuning, and conducting the study. All in just 10 months,” Burnett said. “I can’t wait to see what further giant strides she’ll make as a sophomore.”

When Mai is not in the lab, she can be found dancing or weightlifting.

“They’re a great way to express myself and a step toward being more confident,” she said. “I like seeing the improvement I can make.”

Mai says she learned the value of hard work and education from her parents, who came to Oregon as refugees during the Vietnam War. The experience of finding her own winding path to a major in computer science has inspired her to open doors for other students, especially women and minorities, perhaps as a university professor.

“Becoming a professor would be great, because I’d be doing something I love — research,” Mai said. “I’d also be teaching students and helping them succeed, especially those who may be thinking, ‘Is engineering for me?’ I would love to be one of those people who help future students fit in and find their own path.”