Author: wke2102

I need help.

When combined, these three simple words create one powerful phrase. Yet, one could count the number of times they have heard Columbia students say this phrase on one hand. And that’s a problem.

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In one of my recent articles for The Lion, I had the opportunity to interview Kathy McKeown, a Comparative Literature major who is now a leading data scientist and a Computer Science professor here at Columbia. It was refreshing to hear about someone’s journey into CS, especially for someone like me who is currently trying to do the same thing. As noted on the department website, Columbia’s Computer Science department saw a 30% increase in students declaring a Computer Science major last year and has recorded double digit increases for the last several years.

While it’s nice to see such a large increase in interest in the field, it is abundantly clear that not everyone has decided to take on the major or join the field. In recent months, major technology companies have been releasing diversity reports of their workforce and the results haven’t been pretty. While Columbia, one of the most diverse schools in the Ivy League, does  not release data on the ethnic or gender breakdown for classes due to FERPA laws, its numbers are also quite dismal.

In a student-submitted question for Honors Introduction to Computer Science asking for the gender breakdown for the course, Professor John Kender said:

I think it’s horrifying that we live in a time where people keep pushing for more diversity in the technology sector, but at the same time continue to push people away with passive comments such as “This person just doesn’t fundamentally understand how to code and never will,” or “This is way too easy; no one should need to explain this concept to you.” I have actually heard CS people say these things. With comments like that, why would you want to spend your life in a field with people always looking down on you, whether vocally or behind your back?

Even though it’s hard, I think it’s crucial that everyone gets the opportunity to learn how to code and that they get the opportunity to do so without being looked down upon by more advanced programmers. Major props to my fellow classmates for also working on this issue by launching ColorCode to encourage more people to enter the fields of technology and entrepreneurship.

If you want to learn how to code; do it. And don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t.


Professor Kathy McKeown

Professor Kathy McKeown

We sat down with Professor Kathy McKeown, the director of the Data Science Institute and a Henry and Gertrude Rothschild Professor of Computer Science here at Columbia to learn about her past and some of her current work in the new Institute.

One thing most students might not know is that you majored in Comparative Literature as an undergraduate. What led you to move from Comparative Literature into Computer Science? How has your undergraduate major helped you in your current work?

When I was an undergraduate, I was torn between literature and math. I proceeded along both paths and chose literature primarily because of a very persuasive faculty member. I only discovered CS towards the end of my time at Columbia and I liked it. When I graduated, I talked to a friend who told me about Comparative Linguistics, which was a mixture of the things I loved. I spent time reading about it and knew it was something I wanted to do.

Do you have any plans to further develop Newsblaster? How long did it take you to develop it? What influenced you to make it?

Newsblaster was developed over a five to ten year period by a team that had over ten students working on it at a time. I realized that text summarization was going to be possible and I wanted to be the first to get in there.

I got a grant to do it. We worked primarily on news and it was nice to get daily news updates. It took a while to refine what it looked like, but what I essentially had was a platform for resolving problems with research and collaboration.

I have students working on updating it. We’re working on modernizing it and connecting it to RSS feeds and updating the summarization outcomes. I would like for these updates to come in the fall.

What lead you into Data Science? As the Director of the Columbia Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, what are some of your long-term goals for the institute?

Data Science is closely related to research in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and has been for years. The whole research area of NLP really connects, and we use statistical methods for analyzing it. I am very interested in interdisciplinary work, and data science at its core is interdisciplinary. It’s a combination of machine learning, CS, and statistics. In the context of different disciplines and problems, it really brings people together. I really enjoy taking something on, creating something new, and bringing together a group of people.

We now have two academic certifications intended for working people who want to transition into data science. We also have a master’s program in Data Science. We have started working on a PhD that we plan to offer in fall 2017. We’re working on making an undergraduate major in Data Science so that undergraduates can be involved. There is also the Columbia Data Science Society that works to create opportunities for students to do hackathons, participate in research, and more.

Students can get involved by getting degrees and participating in activities. We want to help students get connected to companies that want to hire them.

The institute is organized into centers focused on certain themes and applications of data science. These themes and applications include new media, health analytics, smart cities, core theory, and cyber security. Faculty can either be involved through research, teaching students, and by helping plan activities.

If students express interest, we will make an introductory class.

How do you see the field of data science growing over the next few years? Do you think Columbia should offer a Data Science major for undergraduate students?

I think Data Science is exploding. New institutes are coming every week. Columbia is a leader in this because we started early. I see it exploding on campus too; there’s a lot of interest across campus and we’re looking at how to set up interdisciplinary courses between departments. We’ve been and are continuing to hire data science faculty and we have new academic programs coming.

This year we have 90 students in the master’s program, which is fairly high for a new program.

What is one of your greatest challenges as a Professor?

One, having the freedom to choose research to work on and shape. And two, working with students. I have always liked working with students and today that is still my favorite part. I love working with my PhD students. I’ve missed teaching students since I have been working on the Institute.

What advice would you give to current students uncertain about what they want to do after college?

I would say that your undergrad years are your chance to learn about what you want to learn and what you want to do. I know in some ways this is not helpful, but I recommend doing things that interest you rather than the things you think will get you a job. The world changes and the job market does too… it’s always possible to wait until your junior or senior year to begin looking at real world possibilities. You can always add new courses to help you. Everybody changes, from changing disciplines to taking new journeys. I have students who enjoy creative writing and are now into NLP. No one should feel that, when making their choices, their decision is forever. You should do what you love and things will work out.


Meet Dr. Shirley Matthews. Dr. Matthews, originally from Westchester County, NY and now a New Jersey resident, is one of the psychologists on Columbia Health’s Counseling and Psychological Services team. She has been with CPS since 2009. Dr. Matthews works as a counseling psychologist with special interest in group therapy, trauma, and self-regulation concerns such as procrastination, exercise, and how and what we eat. She is currently working on developing an intervention to address student issues with sleep.

In my time with Dr. Matthews, I learned about her path to becoming a psychologist and some important life tips that everyone should hear.

What did you major in as an undergraduate?

I double majored in Philosophy and Psychology. I did my thesis on the nuclear family and whether it was a sustainable entity.

What led you to become a psychologist?

I wanted to be a psychologist since I was young. I had never seen a Black psychologist or even heard of one before, but I liked the idea of working with people experiencing difficulties and helping them learn to cope more effectively. My route to becoming a psychologist was certainly circuitous. Let me explain.

My family and other important community members had other plans for me. Since I had won a few science awards, almost everyone, even my family doctor, believed I should become a medical doctor. I seemed to stand out as a smart Black kid and as far as most people seemed to be concerned, what better way to serve the community than to become a medical doctor? Yet I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I really had to fight for my own identity. To be fair, I don’t think they understood what a psychologist did and I don’t think I knew enough to help them understand.

I majored in psychology and philosophy with the intention of following my childhood dream of becoming a psychologist.  But then I got scared; I didn’t even try to apply to graduate school. What I decided to do was make money. I started by working in Banking and Financial Services and then made my way from the financial side to Human Resources in financial institutions.

My employer paid for me to get my Masters in Organizational Psychology here at Teachers College, Columbia.  I realized that I was most happy when I was working with individuals and groups helping folks address problems in living. My corporate experiences led me to pursue my doctorate in counseling psychology, which at the time you could do part time. I held on to my corporate job for most of my doctoral training, but eventually I moved on to pursue my full time clinical internships at Gouverneur and Bellevue hospitals in lower Manhattan. The complexity and diversity of the people and the work there provided me with a new perspective and the tools necessary to help people the way I had always hoped.

What brought you to Columbia Counseling and Psychological Services?

Columbia is a very unique place, in part because of its location in Harlem, at the top of Manhattan. I was once told that we are the most diverse of the Ivy League. And I love the fact that I have the opportunity to work with smart students from all walks of life and from nations and places I will likely never have the opportunity to visit except through their eyes. Meeting a student where they are and helping them figure out how to be their best selves and to achieve their goals is pretty exciting. It can be difficult at times though.

Like the students I support, I am not immune to the suffering around me caused by racism, sexism, oppression, and the like. But with age can come experience and faith. I believe every day provides me an opportunity to know more and do more good. Sometimes I am strong and steadfast, and other days less so, but I believe we can make a difference. The people who know me well know how hard I try. It is an ongoing challenge. I hold on to my faith in our ability to create a better future through compassion and community building.

That brings me to another reason I like working at Columbia. I have found that when given the opportunity, and a little encouragement, students are very supportive of one another. I am no longer surprised when someone in group (one of the CPS therapy groups) is finally willing to say, “I need help,” and how other students are quick to support them. Often students are reluctant to ask for help, but they should know that help is available in a myriad of forms.

What do you focus on within Counseling and Psychological Services?

I am the CPS Groups Coordinator. I help by being an anchor and cheerleader of sorts. I wholeheartedly believe that group therapy is a powerful, so I work to encourage my colleagues to run groups and to encourage students to participate in groups. I also act as a liaison and consultant to the Advising Deans at CC/SEAS and Athletics.

What advice would you give to current students uncertain about what they want to do after college?

Approach yourself with a sense of radical self-acceptance and compassion. If you are feeling pushed in a certain direction by your family or community, first try to understand why. Don’t just disregard them; try and step back and think about it. Before you say no, recognize why you’re saying no. Remember life takes courage, always has always will. Ask a lot of questions about yourself. Make sure your goals are based on your own true values. Most importantly, develop a community of support. Seek people who see you and are willing to believe in you. And come to CPS — because we want to help.

Know a student, staff, or faculty member that we should interview next? Let us know by sending a note to

Photo Courtesy of Bradley Davison (CC '17)

Photo Courtesy of Bradley Davison (CC ’17)

When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, he had one idea on his mind: creating a service that could easily connect all Harvard students. And to do that, he leveraged his computer science skills to create a site that could do just that.

Similarly, when Travis Kalanick started Uber, he wanted to create a company that would make it so no one was stuck in the rain, frustrated, trying to hail a taxi. And to solve what he considered a major problem, he formed a team that eventually created the largest private transportation company in the world.

Now, do you think that either Zuckerberg or Kalanick’s motivations were to make billions of dollars through apps? No, they saw problems around them and used their technical backgrounds to solve them. But this thought process has seemingly vanished in today’s technology-centric world. Nowadays, throngs upon thongs of students are rushing into the field of Computer Science for sole purpose of accruing material wealth.

Computer Science as an undergraduate major has soared in popularity over the past few decades as various sites have noted its high employment rates and starting salaries. At the same time, public thoughts on the major have become less focused on research within the field and more on creating new billion dollar applications and websites.

Day after day, I am bombarded with advertisements from friends and complete strangers begging me to sign up for their new service that they self-title  “the next Facebook”, “the better version of Yik Yak”, and the “next billion dollar idea.”

Day after day, I hear my friends and peers pursing Computer Science degrees talking not about the issues that they want to solve utilizing Computer Science, but about how they will be making six figures out of college or creating some new startup that will earn them billions of dollars in no time or about how [insert major company] is paying them thousands of dollars to code for them through a summer internship. And it is this type of attitude that annoys me.

The field of Computer Science has become confounded with becoming rich, working only on making applications and not about solving problems and I hope to see this toxic type of thought change.

Computer Science offers our generation a new way to tackle major problems and create new solutions for bettering our society. From creating methods to teach computers how to understand when someone is lying to making it faster than ever to analyze a data set, Computer Science researchers are making it easier for our society to better itself even faster. Computer Science is not just about simply making applications and startups; it’s about creating tools that make it easier and faster than ever to connect people across the world and give us new ways to understand old concepts.

So before you say, “I’m going to be so rich after creating [insert some cool tech startup here]”, just sit down and ask yourself, “Are you making a startup because you think you’re solving a problem or are you doing it just because you think it will make you money?” Because if it’s the latter, you may want to reconsider.