Bianca Yu, a recent Stanford graduate, talks about the importance of strong women role models in STEM and data science to help young women believe in what they can achieve. Before returning to Stanford to pursue her Master’s degree in Bioengineering, Bianca is helping educate younger women about data science through the WiDS Education Outreach Program.
Tell us about your background.
I’m a recent Stanford Class of 2020 graduate from St. Louis, Missouri. I moved around to different states in the US throughout my childhood, but I went to middle school and high school in St. Louis, so that’s where I consider my hometown to be.
At Stanford, I double-majored in Bioengineering and Computer Science. Specifically, I’m interested in creating user-centered, innovative technologies to tackle complex challenges in medicine and healthcare. I knew that engineering was the right fit for me the first time I learned what the field even was. To me, engineering was a way that I could make a real impact on the world while having the freedom to think outside-the-box and use my imagination. I’ve always been drawn to creative activities — I did improv theater and a cappella, play guitar and jazz piano, make graphic designs, and build random DIY projects. And, during quarantine, I tried baking a new dessert almost every weekend (some were more successful than others)!
How did you get interested in data science?
Before college, I had never heard of the term. I also didn’t even know exactly what “computer science” meant, so I didn’t plan on studying it. It wasn’t until my first introductory programming class at Stanford, a requirement for the Bioengineering major, that I understood what computer science was. And I loved it. I was intrigued by the challenges I could now solve with code, and the new styles of thinking and problem solving I had to learn. I ended up taking the next CS course in the series, and the next, and eventually I decided to go all in and declare the major, too.
My first WiDS conference taught me what data science was in particular, and I think my new CS background was a key reason I was able to comprehend and appreciate it. I was shocked at how many different fields data science is used in, how many unique problems it can help solve, and how much the modern world depends on it.
But the first time I had a more personal experience with data science was in a class I took on data visualization. Since I was accustomed to analyzing biomedical data from research and other classes, investigating non-biomedical domains finally helped me realize just how exciting data really is, and how it can tell an enlightening story about the world if you ask the proper questions.
More recently, through my involvement with the WiDS Education Outreach Program, I’ve been able to teach myself more data-science-specific skills. Over the past year, we have focused on developing educational materials, such as videos, discussion guides, and hands-on activities for high school students to encourage them to consider careers related to data science and AI. I developed our first hands-on activity in Google Colab as an introduction to data science for students of all backgrounds, regardless of whether they have ever seen code before. Using a dataset on trending YouTube videos, the activity guides students through being curious about the data, creating various visualizations with Python to answer possible questions, and thinking critically about what those visualizations may reveal. It’s commonly said that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and that couldn’t have been truer in this case.
What are you currently working on?
Due to the pandemic, I decided to spend the past year at home with my family and postpone the start of my Master’s program. And while I’m bummed that my internship in France last summer was postponed, I am extremely grateful to have had meaningful opportunities arise in its place.
Since my virtual graduation last June, I’ve been able to work on several amazing projects. First of all, I’ve been working as a computer simulation and modeling engineer for Auricle Health, a medical device startup that is building a solution for high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss. I’m amazed at how much progress we’ve been able to make while collaborating remotely! I have also been working as a quantitative analyst for WiDS research projects focused on gender representation in STEM education. Our team is currently investigating the pipeline for women pursuing graduate degrees in data-science- and AI- related fields.
Finally, I have continued to work on the WiDS Education Outreach Program. In addition to developing educational materials and kickstarting international collaborations, we also formed the WiDS Education Student Advisory. This new team of high school and college students supports the creation of Education resources and hosts WiDS Student Edition, a series of outreach events centered on educating and empowering students to pursue data science, AI, and related fields. Mentoring this student group has been one of the highlights of my past year, and I am constantly inspired by such an enthusiastic, intelligent, dedicated, and uplifting community of young women leaders.
How did you first discover WiDS?
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I started searching for a part-time job on campus and wanted to work in a STEM-related department. I was thrilled to find a student position opening at ICME. The majority of my job consisted of helping out with that year’s WiDS conference, planning for future conferences, and assisting with other WiDS efforts.
Some of my tasks that first year involved researching the backgrounds of the speakers for the conference, and the experience of learning about these incredible women inspired me. So, when I attended my first conference, it was even more exciting to see and hear from them in person. And, in addition to the speakers, the mere energy in the building was invigorating. There were so many people from different companies, universities, and countries, all coming together to learn and celebrate the accomplishments of women in data science and in STEM in general.
Since then, I’ve continued to work with WiDS on gender diversity research, as well as the WiDS Education Outreach Committee and Student Advisory. You can also spot me in a couple of WiDS videos, such as the 2020 WiDS Conference Highlights video and as the voice in the “What is Data Science?” introductory video for the WiDS Education Outreach program!
How has WiDS made an impact on your life and/or work?
I appreciate the way WiDS reiterates the interdisciplinary nature of modern problems. In particular, I’ve learned how critical both collaboration and diversity of thought are to solving our world’s increasingly complex issues. I’ve become more eager for opportunities to engage with people of different backgrounds, and to work in teams composed of varied expertise throughout the development of my career.
Furthermore, WiDS has continually inspired me by showcasing strong women leaders in STEM — role models who have illustrated that I myself have the power to pursue my interests and the ability to achieve my ambitions. As a high school student interested in math and science, I wasn’t aware of all the ways I could apply those subjects. I’ve since learned just how imperative role models are in motivating young women and girls to further pursue STEM. Our recent WiDS Student Edition career panel featured 4 successful women data scientists in various fields, and participants were able to engage in conversation with them. It feels extremely fulfilling to create a space where students can be openly curious about career possibilities and also interact closely with the kinds of people they may aspire to become.
All in all, WiDS has helped me feel supported and proud to be a woman in STEM, and I am excited to see what the future holds as our society continues to make progress in diversity and inclusivity.
What comes next for you? And what are your hopes for women in data science in the future?
I will be returning to Stanford to pursue a Master’s degree in Bioengineering with a focus on biomedical devices.
My hope is that there will be a greater diversity of role models for girls and young women, especially those who are still figuring out their interests and what kind of impact they want to make in the world. I wish that they will not feel limited by societal expectations and assumptions about what they are capable of achieving, and that they will feel supported by the world to pursue whatever impassions them.