Wendy Pan ’18 Learns the Power of Mentorship

For computer scientist Wendy Pan, the mentoring she received at Columbia Engineering was an invaluable part of her educational experience.
—Photo courtesy of Wendy Pan

Lessons from mentors can be as life-changing as lectures from professors, according to computer scientist Wendy Pan ’18, who found both equally essential to her Columbia Engineering experience.

Coming to campus from China, Pan had planned to major in physics while exploring math, biomedical engineering, and life in New York City. Computer science seemed just a requirement to get out of the way.

“I didn’t have any CS background,” Pan said, “but the classes I took were all very well-designed, so I got to work on interesting assignments, like building a simple image processing tool in Python and programming a web server from scratch in C, without being intimidated by people in the class with years of programming experience.”

Those introductory courses, taught by Professors Adam Cannon and Paul Blaer, soon awakened a real passion for applying computer science to practical problem solving. Those professors also became the first of many inspiring mentors she found in the department. Studying Advanced Programming with Professor Jae-Woo Lee, Pan began thinking bigger, and realized it was time to change her major. Having learned much about computer science theory from Professor Al Aho, she decided to work as his head teaching assistant, helping other students while strengthening her own grasp of the subject.

Pan also collaborated with Lecturer in Discipline Ansaf Salleb-Aouissi on a project using a machine learning model to classify and better understand medical data. They used data on preterm births and Alzheimer’s disease to build models for predicting patients’ potential diagnoses, a complex assignment that brought her studies dramatically to life.

“The experience taught me a lot about machine learning, like how to choose algorithms and features, and the mathematical foundation of neural nets,” said Pan, who is minoring in applied mathematics. “It was definitely a very enlightening first exposure to academic research.”

Pan took those skills with her to Google, where she spent the past two summers interning on virtual reality projects and contributing to machine learning research. Her work included an initiative to encourage more civil discourse, using machine learning to classify comments online. After graduating this spring, she will remain in New York to join Two Sigma as a software engineer focusing on ensuring data integrity and improving data pipelines. In the long term, she would like to apply advancing technologies to managing bioinformatics for better healthcare, and is considering graduate school.

That’s not all she’ll be taking away from her time at Columbia Engineering. As the beneficiary of invaluable insights bestowed by a fellow student mentor who became a good friend, Pan opted to join both the Columbia Mentoring Initiative and the ADI Computer Science Mentoring Program, advising other students on internships, interviews, and making the most of life on campus. And, she started volunteering as a tutor at local elementary schools.

“My mentor gave me a lot of advice, and we’re still in touch two years after she graduated,” Pan said. “I’d like to be able to help other people the way my mentor helped me.”

—by Jesse Adams

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