Rebecca Danford lives in Seattle, Washington, but she grew up in the Bay Area in California. She got her bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington (UW) in biochemistry. As an undergraduate, she worked in a paleoclimatology lab studying climate change. Rebecca’s research focused on rainfall patterns in the Pacific Islands. She was mostly working in the organic chemistry lab, but she had the incredible opportunity to join the lab on a field research expedition to Palau in 2016. In Palau, her team traveled to some of the uninhabited islands of the archipelago and hiked through the jungle to collect sediment core samples. Rebecca states that “was an amazing and unforgettable experience!”. After her research was complete, she was able to stay and teach a biology class for a week at the Palau High School in Koror which Rebecca found to be really fun, connecting with the students and teaching them a bit about her research. Rebecca first became interested in computer science when she was working in the research lab and wanting to develop more efficient protocols for data analysis. So, she took a few computer science courses at UW. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she started working at a computational biology company that was working on protein design for sustainable bioengineering. Rebecca was fascinated by the work being done because it seemed to combine all of her passions: biochemistry, sustainability, and computer science. At the biotech company, she had the opportunity to work at the intersection between the wet lab and computational team. She taught herself Python, started programming liquid handling robots, and worked on automating the data pipeline. After a few years, she knew that she wanted to grow her computer science skills and dive into machine learning, which is what led her to OMSCS with a specialization in Machine Learning. While in OMSCS, she has held a few different machine learning internships and worked part-time as a substitute teacher for her local K-12 school district with her favorite subjects to teach being middle school math and science.
Right now, Rebecca is working as an Associate Machine Learning Engineer for a company that is empowering consumers to be climate conscious and building economic incentives for climate-smart spending. In terms of research, Rebecca is now working for a company whose goal is to simplify the transition to a net-zero-carbon economy by offering individuals financial tools and incentives for climate-smart living. There, she is working on a few machine learning and NLP projects that predict carbon emissions for various consumer projects. The goal is that this can help consumers make informed decisions and make it possible for companies to reward and incentivize climate-smart decisions.
"There are so many pressing problems in the world that computers have the power to solve—and we need to make sure we have a diverse group of minds coming together to solve these problems thoughtfully."
To Rebecca, computer science is just algorithmic thinking. At its core, computer science is writing down a set of instructions so a computer (more algorithms) can solve it. Because computers are built and operated by humans, she emphasizes that it is important to remember that all parts of computer science also involve human-computer intersections. She further argues that you cannot think about the computer in isolation: “I need to think about my algorithms in relation to how they are used by people and impact people.” With previous experience in chemistry and molecular biology labs where experiments can take weeks and months before you find out there was a mistake and you must redo everything, Rebecca loves how fast and agile it is to work with computers. Not only are computers so versatile in the breadth of problems they can solve, but the turnaround time is so short to get something from the pilot-test stage to production ready. Rebecca contends that computer technology is so powerful that “there are so many pressing problems in the world that computers have the power to solve—and we need to make sure we have a diverse group of minds coming together to solve these problems thoughtfully". Besides computer science, Rebecca is really passionate about working on projects in the sustainability space with a focus on climate change. She is fascinated by all the new sustainable technology that is being developed. She would love to learn more and contribute to this space with machine learning tools. Other areas that she is interested in are healthcare and medicine. She thinks there is so much need within the medical field, and machine learning has a lot to offer. Of course, Rebecca also loves teaching and education! Whether she is in a formal classroom setting, an office, or everyday life, she thinks about education: "How can I learn better? How can I educate my colleagues about what I’m working on? What is an effective way to communicate this concept? I think my love for teaching will follow me wherever I go.” Beautifully said, Rebecca!
"It really was a no-brainer for me because OMSCS was so affordable and every OMSCS student/alum I spoke to emphasized how much they were learning in the program, how great the curriculum was, and that OMSCS was opening doors for them to jobs in software."
Her inspiration to enroll in OMSCS was really from her last year of undergrad when she decided to enroll in an introduction to computer programming course just to “try it out for fun”. Rebecca ended up loving it: “I remember having a conversation with my computer science professor a week before graduation and he recommended I consider a master’s degree. I investigated the CS master’s programs at a few universities, and they were financially out of reach for me.” Since the high cost of computer science master’s programs made her decision to attend grad school out of reach, Rebecca instead started a job at a computational biology company where she was able to apply her biochemistry knowledge and had the freedom to tinker with a few programming projects and learn about AI work being done at the company. She was hoping that eventually she could wiggle her way toward a software developer role. A year later, her partner heard about OMSCS from a friend and enrolled. Rebecca saw how much her partner enjoyed the coursework and the flexibility of the program, so she finally decided to apply to OMSCS after attending an OMSCS networking event in Seattle and getting to chat with other students. “Everyone was so kind. It was really cool hearing about their nonlinear backgrounds. I felt welcomed into this community of folx that were making 180-degree career transitions and trying to learn CS tools to integrate into other disciplines. It really was a no-brainer for me because OMSCS was so affordable and every OMSCS student/alum I spoke to emphasized how much they were learning in the program, how great the curriculum was, and that OMSCS was opening doors for them to jobs in software.”
When asked what she liked about OMSCS she responded with “So much! First off, I really like the quality of the classes. I never feel like I’m missing out on the ‘in-person experience’ because the lectures are so well done and the curriculum is so well thought out. A big thanks to all the professors and TAs behind making this happen, because I know it must not be easy! I honestly feel like most of the OMSCS courses I have taken are better than the in-person courses I had in undergrad. I also really like the affordability of the program and the flexibility to be able to take my time with my degree. OMSCS is challenging, it’s definitely not an easy program, but I have learned so much as a student. And, OMSCS has enabled me to make my career transition.” Rebecca’s favorite classes have both been from Dr. Joyner: CS 7646: Machine Learning for Trading and CS 6750: Human Computer Interaction. Rebecca stated that Dr. Joyner is a wonderful instructor and really puts his heart and soul into the classes he teaches. As a student, Rebecca can really tell Dr. Joyner cares and really wants to maximize the students' learning. She also really enjoyed CS 7638: Artificial Intelligence for Robotics. The homework assignments were so interesting to her and had great visuals that really helped her understand how the algorithms she was building worked.
"I never feel like I’m missing out on the ‘in-person experience’ because the lectures are so well done and the curriculum is so well thought out... I honestly feel like most of the OMSCS courses I have taken are better than the in-person courses I had in undergrad."
If she could collaborate with anyone, Rebecca says it would be N.K. Jemisin: “I just finished reading How Long ‘til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin, which is a book of speculative short stories with tidbits of fantasy and science fiction. In her writing, she confronts oppression and environment issues. The way she crafts different worlds is just brilliant, sometimes unsettling, but always mind-boggling. Having worked in biotechnology and now in machine learning, sometimes I feel like I’m walking the line between science fiction and reality. I think it’s important to think deeply about the impacts of what I’m doing and N.K. Jemisin really inspires me to do that. She also reminds me that it is important to include creativity and imagination in my work, which (I think) makes me a better engineer.”
An interesting and amazing fact about Rebecca is the fact that she volunteers as a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind. She gets paired with a puppy to train and socialize until the puppy is about 1.5 years old. Then, she bittersweetly says goodbye and drops the puppy off at “puppy college” where it will learn guide work and eventually get paired with a visually impaired partner. “Though it is so hard saying goodbye to the puppies, words cannot describe how rewarding it is to see them go on to become a guide dog. Oh, and a byproduct of this process is I get a lot of practice with reinforcement learning—applied to dog training.” As for her other favorite hobbies, Rebecca loves teaching and wants to find a way to integrate teaching into her career—either formally or informally. She loves being outside and active—hiking, riding her bike, “bikepacking”, backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing, and weightlifting. She enjoys traveling via bike and did a solo bike trip from Athens, Greece to Budapest, Hungary a few years ago! How incredible!!
So, what about plans for after graduation? Rebecca is hoping to find a role as a machine learning engineer where she can apply what she has been learning in OMSCS and continue to grow her skill set. Rebecca states, “I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but it is important to me to work for a company with a powerful mission that is bettering the world. I want to contribute to something that aligns with my values.” Amazing statement, Rebecca!