Alumni Spotlight: Serena Lei

Serena Lei

Serena Lei grew up and went to school in Virginia, and after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering with a minor in Computer Science, Serena moved to San Diego, CA. Serena currently works as a bioinformatics engineer at Illumina performing software testing of bioinformatics software and implementing CI/CD best practices to improve software development processes. The mission at Illumina is to “improve human health by unlocking the power of the genome,” which Serena thinks is a worthwhile mission and is happy to combine biology and computer science in her work. Serena is also an Instructional Associate for the OMSCS program as she enjoys finding ways to help students understand a new concept. Outside of work, Serena loves playing with her puppy (her first dog!), learning Japanese, volleyball, running, hip hop, and aerial dance.

Before learning of OMSCS, Serena did not plan on going back to school: “I had a been-there-done-that attitude.” However, during winter break, Serena caught up with some friends from her time as an undergraduate student over dinner and one of those friends announced that he was currently enrolled in OMSCS. It was the first time that Serena had heard of an Online Computer Science master’s program that, most importantly to Serena at the time, did not require a GRE. At the time of applying, Serena was not fully sold on committing to a master’s program, but “since the application was only $75, I figured that just applying would not hurt. I would apply first and if I was accepted decide later. Then I got the acceptance letter. I debated whether to go for it. I talked with a mentor about it and said that my employer would be paying the tuition, so I had nothing to lose by pursuing a masters, but my mentor pointed out that there was something at stake: time. Could I use the time I spent working towards a masters on furthering my career or working on another side project? I figured that realistically I would probably waste that time watching anime or so anyways. I was working in a CS field but only had a CS minor, so I thought a masters would help me fill in any knowledge gaps, learn new things, and be good for my career. Since it was online, I didn’t have to take a break from working full time”

"It was great watching lectures in my pjs under a blanket on the couch, or while walking on a treadmill."

What Serena liked most about OMSCS is the community and being able to watch the lectures “wherever, whenever, on my own time. It was great watching lectures in my pjs under a blanket on the couch, or while walking on a treadmill.” On the OMSCS-study Slack workspace, Serena mentioned she was able to connect with her peers through class and hobby channels such as running channels. ”Of course, I joined the class channels where I could post questions about projects or help other students. During my undergrad years I did not talk much with my classmates, but I found it easier to interact with the class group chat platform in OMSCS. Although the courses were online, I felt more connected in OMSCS than I did in my in-person classes thanks to the OMSCS Slack workspace.” Serena passionately stated that OMSCS has also helped show her that she loves to teach and help others learn, and that people recognize her contributions. In fact, “I was happy to see shout outs from peers at the end of the class thanking myself and other helpful students. I put my profile icon on my graduation hat and when I attended graduation a handful of peers recognized me and were happy to meet me in person.”

"Although the courses were online, I felt more connected in OMSCS than I did in my in-person classes thanks to the OMSCS Slack workspace."

As for what Serena would have done differently if she could go back in time, she would interview right after taking Graduate Algorithms even if she weren’t specifically looking for a new job. Since she graduated after Graduate Algorithms she was relishing her break from school, but it would have been good to get the interview practice in while the course was still fresh in her mind. Serena would have liked to see what other positions and kinds of work might be out there: “It’s good to check in with the industry standard and know your market worth and perhaps I may have found a position that better suited me if I had looked.”

Some wisdom Serena wishes to share with students is to be resourceful. There will be times that you do not have the information or understanding that you need. “If you’re new to programming, fine. If you’re rusty on linear algebra or probability, fine. If you don’t comprehend a lecture after the first watch, it’s okay. But you should be conscious of what gaps you have and take proactive steps to close those gaps.” Serena further suggests using Slack/Piazza/Ed/Reddit search to see if your question has already been answered, Google additional resources on topics you do not understand, and use your peers and the TAs who there are to help you.