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How undergraduate Mitali Palekar developed a passion for programming and diversity at UW CSE

This week, UW CSE catches up with computer science major Mitali Palekar for the latest installment of our Undergrad Spotlight. Palekar is a sophomore from Cupertino, California who spent a portion of her childhood in Mumbai, India and is trained in Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance form.

Palekar serves as an undergraduate research assistant in the Security & Privacy Research Lab. Last summer, she completed an internship at NASA working on a project for the HoloLens. She has wholeheartedly embraced and amplified CSE’s commitment to diversity in her role as vice president of community outreach for the UW Society of Women Engineers and her work with UW Girls Who Code.

We asked Palekar to share her journey to CSE, her passion for the technical as well as social aspects of computing, and why she aims to be a role model for other young women who would follow in her footsteps.

CSE: Why did you choose to study computer science?

MP: Having taken a few programming courses in high school, I came to UW with a fair idea that I wanted to pursue computer science. The theoretical aspects tied to algorithmic and logical thinking as well as programming really excited me and I knew that CSE would provide the perfect blend of both. Though my interests remain the same, broadly speaking, my time at UW has definitely expanded my definition of computer science and its potential applications. CSE has exposed me to a variety of concepts, including combinatorial game theory, programming bots, and computer vision-based game solver techniques — the breadth and power of these applications is what makes CSE so appealing.

CSE: What is your favorite thing about being a UW CSE student?

MP: That’s a hard question, but I think as everyone within CSE will agree, the opportunities that are presented to us as UW CSE students are truly “boundless” and that’s absolutely been my favorite part of CSE over the past quarter. UW CSE exposes us to a diverse set of opportunities: interdisciplinary and sub-field specific classes, research, community building and outreach. What really makes my time so memorable and enjoyable is the collective learning, discovery and discourse with a diverse and committed group of peers. I’ve only been a part of this amazing community for a quarter and a half and I’m sure that I’ve only scratched the surface. CSE is a very close-knit community within the larger UW community, and I cannot wait to further engage in this community over the next few years!

CSE: How did your earlier educational experiences inspire you to pursue computer science?

MP: Eight years ago, I moved to Mumbai. In India, I was exposed to a diverse demographic with a unique set of issues. I was also immersed in a very stringent educational set-up which laid emphasis on grades and rote learning. This challenging environment instilled self-discipline and motivation to take advantage of the opportunities later presented to me at the UW. It also gave me a greater cultural awareness and connection with my ethnic origins, as well as a greater sense of self-awareness in terms of my own interests. I want to channel these personal experiences into a positive learning experience for my community and also use them as a vehicle for promoting gender equality in STEM fields.

CSE: Who or what in UW CSE has inspired you the most?

MP: As a collective, my CSE professors, research mentors and advisers. I love how passionate the faculty are, be it about education, large-scale issues such as gender equality in STEM, or technical projects. More importantly, they are passionate about sharing this with their students. My CSE professors have always been open to discussing how course content fits into a large domain of industry and academia, my lab mentors have guided me in the process of determining where my interests lie within CSE, and my adviser has helped me piece together different experiences into creating a coherent goal for myself. I’m so happy to have discovered this group of people, because they definitely push and inspire me every day!

CSE: One of these experiences is an undergraduate research position in CSE’s Security & Privacy Research Lab. What led you to seek out that opportunity?

MP: Over the past year and a half, I have sought to intentionally step outside of my comfort zone and actively pursue new avenues that would lead to both academic and personal growth. I was looking for an opportunity to apply the skills that I had developed in backend development, data structures and algorithms to a real-world scenario. Working in the Security & Privacy Research Lab seemed the perfect avenue to apply my academic knowledge to a project that has the ability to be affect thousands of users — and I’m so happy that I did.

CSE: What are you working on?

MP: I am working to develop and maintain Confidante, an encrypted email client that makes sending PGP encrypted emails easy by using Keybase for automatic key management. The main goal of Confidante is to make email encryption a more user-friendly, quick and accessible service, which will benefit users for whom information security is of prime importance. I’ve contributed to the development of several features, such as making private key signing optional, changing the front-end to allow for interaction with past email threads while composing new messages, and adding the drafts feature for the email client. The opportunity to independently implement features has enabled me to hone my technical skills and develop a greater understanding of security research. As a college sophomore, I find it gratifying that I am able to contribute to CSE research that has the potential to benefit thousands of users.

CSE: What has been your favorite aspect of your lab experience?

MP: Definitely my interactions with professor Franzi Roesner and my lab mentors, Ada Lerner and Eric Zeng. They have made my research experience an enjoyable and fulfilling one. They have been approachable and supportive, and they have also pushed me to identify how my activities contribute towards my larger goals and interests. It’s not easy entering a completely unknown field where everyone around you seems to be an expert and you need to learn a new language and new concepts. I hope I can use this positive mentorship experience to inspire and encourage other young women to pursue computer science and other STEM fields.

CSE: How does the effort to increase diversity in CSE align with your own academic and career goals?

MP: In the short-term, I want to focus my energies on broadening my technical knowledge through research, personal projects and internships. I have a strong desire to address large-scale issues such as gender inequality in STEM from a technical perspective and inspire other women through my work on technical projects. Having personally experienced a lack of mentorship in high school, I also want to fill that gap by creating a supportive and collaborative environment for young women entering CSE and other STEM fields so that they are able to pursue their dreams independently and fearlessly. I believe that diversity is invaluable in promoting a more balanced and inclusive thought process and perspective. In the long term, I hope that my technical knowledge will allow me to create impactful and meaningful products that, directly or indirectly, promote gender equality in STEM fields, foster a more comfortable and inclusive environment for minorities, and advance the positive impact of technology on society.

 

We are inspired by Mitali’s contributions in the short time she has been at CSE and her dedication to serving as a role model for other young women in the STEM fields!

January 27, 2017