October 19, 2020 WSU Tri-Cities opportunities connect computer science student with Google, PNNL
By Lori Nelson, WSU Tri-Cities
RICHLAND, Wash. – KJ Galvan fell in love with computer science early.
Growing up, she was the go-to person in her family for computer help. In grade school, a teacher in Prosser noticed Galvan’s troubleshooting skills and recruited her for a special academic program where students provide technical assistance to computer users. She helped provide technical solutions in the classroom and other areas. It helped show her that working with computers could be a viable career option.
“I still keep in touch with that teacher,” she said. “Big thanks to Mr. Smith and the Prosser School District.”
When exploring her college options, Galvan knew she wanted to stay close to home, but attend an institution that would provide her with great opportunities to grow her knowledge and background in computer science. After attending Columbia Basin College for her first two years, she transferred to Washington State University Tri-Cities.
The small class sizes, she said, were preferable, and she liked the fact that through the small school setting she could easily get to know her instructors and fellow peers.
Additionally, Galvan said she particularly liked the quality of the courses in computer science at WSU Tri-Cities and the professors were also great at connecting students with other opportunities, which helped her get connected with internships beyond her initial expectations.
Award-winning Coding Cougs leads to prestigious jobs
In her first year at WSU Tri-Cities, Galvan became involved in the Coding Cougs Club at WSU Tri-Cities where she now serves as the group’s career development officer.
In their few-year history as a club, the student organization has gone on to win several top awards at hackathons where they competed against hundreds of participants.
Galvan said in addition to the real-world, practical experiences that she gains from the club, she also values the opportunity to mentor younger students. Helping her female peers, she said, is particularly rewarding, as computer science is typically male-dominated.
Galvan recruited three other women, all new to computer science, to join her on a team for DubHacks, a hackathon held at the University of Washington. At the competition last year, the group worked together to develop a solution for a real-world issue that pertains to women.
“We formed a team around a cool idea that we had for scanning hair products to see if they are good for curly hair,” she said.
The app they developed, Curl Code, won first place in the “Best use of Google Cloud” category at the competition.
The win also put the women on the radar of Google. The judge, a Google employee, encouraged them to apply for summer internships. Galvan jumped at the opportunity. After an extensive interview and skill demonstration process, Galvan was offered an internship with Google. She completed the internship virtually this summer, due to COVID-19.
Local internships unique to Tri-Cities
Beyond her opportunities that connected her with Google, Galvan said one of the benefits about attending WSU Tri-Cities is the local access to prestigious internships.
While attending WSU Tri-Cities and before getting her internship at Google this summer, she interned at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for two years. In her first summer internship, she helped with development of a website for a PNNL application.
“When I first started there, I knew nothing,” she said. “I didn’t have any real–world experience and I was afraid I would fall flat on my face, but they’re actually used to that. I learned a lot in that summer to be able to actually contribute.”
Her internship supervisors saw Galvan’s potential for additional growth and at the end of the summer, they suggested she continue during the school year. After successful interviews for a year-round internship, Galvan was put on a team.
Galvan said her time at PNNL was critical for building her skills in computer science, which served as a perfect mix with what she was learning in her courses.
“We were treated like a full-time staff members and we were doing the same tasks,” she said. “It was almost as if we were a junior developer just starting out. My team was awesome. They would find opportunities for me, not only to practice my technical skills, but also my soft skills.”
During her internship at PNNL, Galvan built confidence in the knowledge that she could do the job and be valued in it. It also led to confidence when working at Google.
“I was in the one of the first meetings at Google and I was on top of it,” she said. “One of the hosts said, ‘You can tell KJ has been doing internships for a while now.’ It just takes you to another level that stands out.”
Advice for fellow and prospective students
For those looking to be successful in computer science, Galvan said there are a few things that students can do throughout their college experience to help guarantee that success.
“Stay engaged in class. Talk during class, talk with the professors,” she said. “It’s important not to hide behind your laptop screen. Everyone else is struggling with the subject matter, too. It’s not just you who’s like, what is this?”
Galvan also advises students to join a community and stay connected, especially as classes are more likely to be distance-based in the current COVID pandemic.
“Maybe jump on a call with some of your classmates, talk about the material,” she said. “Don’t stay isolated because isolation is never good. Then you’ll have a struggle and then you’ll feel like it’s only you and you might give up.”
World-class faculty rooted in real-world work
While self-motivated, Galvan credits the computer science faculty at WSU Tri-Cities with preparing her for success. Nathan Tenney, PNNL scientist and adjunct faculty in computer science, taught Galvan’s data structures class.
“He would discuss trade–offs about data structures and algorithms and he would provoke you and get everyone engaged and talking in class,” she said. “That’s huge because at companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, they expect you to do these technical interviews where you solve problems and you have to talk through what the trade-offs are. He implanted that all in my brain without me really noticing.”
She also values the resident faculty who provide formal and informal opportunities for learning and networking. She said Bob Lewis, associate professor of computer science, points out different conferences students could go to or just asks how students are doing.
”Dr. Lewis’ classes are known on campus for being challenging, but he does a great job teaching it,” she said. “He’s always available and he really loves the subject matter.”
In Luis De La Torre’s project-based class, Galvan had the opportunity to start developing the curly hair app that helped land her internship with Google, among an assortment of other hands-on activities.
Galvan said the fact that she learns from a mix of resident and adjunct faculty is a bonus.
“We have these adjuncts that have full-time jobs and they teach us about their work,” she said, “We also have [resident] professors who have this really deep knowledge about the field in general. We get to learn not just your normal coursework. You get to learn outside of class and really pick their brains.”
Galvan said the support that students get from the faculty encourages students to be involved.
“Coding Cougs went to DubHacks and they did a tally and WSU Tri-Cities had a huge turnout,” she said. “I don’t want to get into rivalries or anything, but computer science here is awesome.”