I completed my Ph.D. in computer science in May 2018 and am currently working at Microsoft as a data and applied scientist. Internships have had a huge impact on my journey in STEM. People may not know what possibilities they have until they get the opportunity, or someone may get stuck in a dead-end job if they can’t try it out first in an internship. It was especially important for me as a person with a visual impairment to discover where I should focus my career.
In summer 2014, I completed an internship at the University of Kentucky. As a third year computer science Ph.D. student, I took this opportunity to see if this would be the lab where I would finish my Ph.D. research. The project I was working on was in collaboration with the Department of Forestry. The problem I looked at was how to model a forest using airborne LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) 3D point cloud, which has several millions of points to be processed.
After being involved in the project, I realized that my visual impairment is not a barrier at all, but a hidden power for such a project! Working with 3D images is something that needs a strong mental imaging capacity, rather than a good visual acuity that can only capture one angle to the 3D image at a time. People with vision problems naturally develop stronger mental capacities in order to compensate for their sensing inefficacy, and here is where I can claim I can potentially be more successful than to a sighted peer. I received a very promising initial result, so I developed this work into my Ph.D. dissertation.
The project helped shape my future path because it became clearer that I wanted to get into a research-based career in STEM, such as a tenure-track professorship or a research position in related industries. It also helped me understand my weaknesses and identify skills I’d like to learn so that I can shape my coursework during the rest of my degree program.
People with disabilities often fear that their disability will limit what they’ll be able to do after school. An internship can be an opportunity to assess a situation in practice, seek accommodations, and alleviate the fear. I can say from my personal experience that persevering to reach a goal can help to overcome fears and improve self-confidence—necessary traits regardless of your aspirations.