The accomplishments of women and people of color have often gone unrecognized in the computing field, but students like Xandra McCoy and Sophya Hargenrater, undergraduates in computer science, have been working to honor the sometimes overlooked computing pioneers who have come before them.

“It is daunting to enter a career when no one in the field looks like you. For more young women and people of color to pursue computing, they must be able to see themselves in the field,” McCoy said. “Our goal is to highlight the diverse contributors that have been there all along as well as encourage diversity in computing for the future.”

As part of the Computer Science Genome team, also called CS Genome, McCoy and Hargenrater researched and built Hidden Figures, a database of information about computer scientists throughout history. 

The project is part of a Department of Computer Science initiative called Broadening Undergraduate Research Groups in Systems (BURGS). BURGS was formed last spring to help undergraduates gain hands-on skills and experience. It has grown to encompass five projects, including CS Genome — the team of nearly 20 students that built Hidden Figures and develops other data repositories for research purposes.

A prestigious invitation

McCoy is a computer science junior who, alongside Hargenrater, a senior, and the rest of the CS Genome team, were invited to present Hidden Figures as the 35th anniversary exhibit for the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis, one of the highest profile conferences in computing held this fall in Denver.

The conference organizers gave five students, including McCoy and Hargenrater, a full scholarship to attend and present their work, along with their faculty advisor, Margaret Ellis, associate professor of practice in computer science.

The overall theme for the exhibition was “I am HPC” — an effort to highlight and encourage the diversity in computing.

For more than a decade, the computer science department has worked to recruit students and faculty from around the world and to make its academic and research programs widely accessible to underrepresented groups.

Open source recognition

In the United States in 2020, self-identified males constituted 77 percent of computer science graduates, and 36 percent of degree recipients self-identified as white — the largest single ethnic demographic in the discipline, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The student Hidden Figures database — titled after the movie of the same name — highlights computer science-related pioneers whose stories have been overlooked. As an open source project, it allows users to not only search for information, but to add new entries. Since its creation, it has grown to feature more than 300 computing professionals.

“As a woman in computing myself, it can sometimes be daunting to be a minority in my classes,” Hargenrater said. “And it was encouraging to work on this project and know that women and other minority groups have made major contributions in computing.”

Hargenrater describes feeling intimidated by the conference at first, as there were over 13,000 attendees, most of whom were professionals in the computer systems field. However, once she and McCoy began presenting their exhibit, she became more comfortable after seeing how the attendees were impressed by their work.

“It was a valuable experience to be able to talk to people around the globe and learn about the ‘hidden figures’ that they personally know. It was also beneficial to see other projects and talk to professionals to gain new ideas to implement into our project going forward,” Hargenrater said.

The conference team was even able to meet some of the computer scientists featured in the database like Valerie Taylor, who has made contributions to parallel computing, and Rosa Badia, who specializes in programming models for complex systems and distributed computing. The two pioneers serve as inspiration to the team members, who spent a semester researching the women’s contributions to computing.

“They are accomplished in both technical and leadership roles, which is what I strive for in the future,” McCoy said.

Screen capture of Hidden Figures data visualization
Computer Science Genome students not only researched underrepresented computing pioneers, they created an open source database with robust data visualization aspects. Virginia Tech photo

Broadening research, deeping experience

When Hargenrater first joined the project, her coding experience was limited to simple projects with step-by-step instructions. With guidance from advisors and other students, Hidden Figures gave her the opportunity to be creative and design new features without guidelines. Through this project, she said she was able to learn new coding languages, work on a codebase with multiple contributors, and train new students to work on the project. 

McCoy helped with backend development for the project, which included scripts to populate the database and development of the application programming interface. She contributed to the file upload feature, which allows users to submit images to the database, as well as data collection and cleanup to ensure there was a substantial list of contributors before the crowdsourcing features were live.

McCoy and Hargenrater said they became involved with the project after taking classes with Ellis and attending her office hours to ask about research opportunities. Students can become involved with BURGS by applying, Ellis said.

"We have developed an outstanding, diverse team with excellent outcomes, and students have very positive experiences,” Ellis said. “They build relationships and develop skills important for both industry and graduate school.”

Hargenrater and McCoy credit Ellis, Associate Professor Godmar Back, and Kirk Cameron, faculty lead and associate vice president of academic affairs at the Innovation Campus, as essential to the project’s success. And, they say, the project has given them optimism for the future. 

“I hope Hidden Figures helps other young women of color see themselves in computing and encourages them to pursue it,” McCoy said.

Written by Tayler Butters, a senior majoring in English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

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