three women smile while sitting on a picnic table; the sun is shining in the background
Assistant Professor Maike Sonnewald, left, undergraduate student Aine Keenan, middle, and M.S. student Saisha Pradeep Shetty (Steven Trinh/UC Davis)

International Women’s Day Spotlight on UC Davis Women in Computer Science

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, the University of California, Davis, College of Engineering recognizes women in engineering, their journey to and in the field, and how they promote a diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

Meet some remarkable women in the Department of Computer Science, and learn how they inspire inclusion in engineering.

  • Aine Keenan, Undergraduate Student
  • Saisha Pradeep Shetty, M.S. Student
  • Maike Sonnewald, Assistant Professor

What inspired you to pursue engineering? Describe your journey to UC Davis.

Keenan: When people think of engineering, we often think about innovation and science - however I committed to pursue engineering due to the technology community and personal growth it offers to everyone involved. Whether participating in open source, research, or proprietary software, talented groups come together to form a community with respect for each other and aim to make an impact. Additionally, the technology world offers interest groups where you can create a community to support Women in Technology and more. Inside these communities, you can find your specific niche in software, hardware, marketing, sales, or management, depending on your passion at the time. Altogether, being a part of technical communities and finding my passion that provides impact, has allowed me immense personal growth and fulfillment I would never have achieved without engineering. And of course, I love the algorithms, frameworks, and theory powering the software!

I was born and raised in California, and I knew that college was a place that would help mold me into the person I’ve always wanted to be. Therefore, I applied to the UC system and was delighted to accept the offer to attend UC Davis. I’ve really enjoyed my time at UC Davis. It truly is an academic powerhouse!

Shetty: My journey into engineering began with a childhood fascination sparked by a YouTube video featuring Sophia the robot, the first to receive legal personhood. Witnessing Sophia's capabilities ignited my interest in artificial intelligence and inspired me to delve into the broader realm of computer science. As I explored further, I became captivated by the transformative impact of AI on problem-solving, seeing it as an art that reshapes industries and innovates solutions to complex challenges. Recognizing its potential to revolutionize our world, my passion for computer science solidified. When it came time to choose a university, the stellar reputation of UC Davis for computer science and STEM education made it the obvious choice, providing an ideal environment to nurture my interests and aspirations in the field. Furthermore, UC Davis's commitment to cutting-edge research aligns seamlessly with my academic goals, making it an ideal institution for my educational journey and research endeavors.

Sonnewald: The engineering discipline is one where ideas and fundamental insight are turned into actions. I love science for the sake of scientific discovery, and I firmly believe it is necessary, but the aspect of engineering that targets actionable insight bridges the gap between pure science and societal impact. My journey to Davis started with two master's degrees and one Ph.D. at the University of Southampton. I started with a M.S. in Oceanography, but my passion for complex systems dynamics (for example, chaos theory) and computer science moved me to shift from oceanography to computer science. From here, I won funding to combine the two in my Ph.D. After my Ph.D., I joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to continue my work as a postdoctoral associate, and after this, I went to Princeton University as an associate research scholar. I was delighted to join the faculty of the UC Davis Department of Computer Science in 2023 and see Davis as an ideal home to continue my deeply interdisciplinary work.

Describe your current research and its impact.

Keenan: I am the president of Women in Computer Science where I lead a team to build a community to empower women interested in computer science. I work as a developer on a cross-functional team at CodeLab, building a machine learning web application. Additionally, I have experience in the software industry as a Developer Advocate Intern at Red Hat working on Podman Desktop and Red Hat Developer Hub.

Shetty: Currently, I am actively engaged in a research project alongside Professor Setareh Rafatirad, exploring the integration of gamification into artificial intelligence, or AI, education through serious digital games. These educational tools, which are crafted to impart training objectives while infusing game-like elements, have gained significant relevance in the dynamic landscape of AI learning. Our study is a comprehensive analysis of various serious games within the domains of AI, machine learning and data science. The primary objective is to discern their capabilities and pinpoint potential gaps, offering a nuanced understanding of how these games effectively deliver specific learning outcomes, facilitate skill development and enhance problem-solving experiences in the field of artificial intelligence. Beyond the academic realm, our work seeks to make a lasting impact in an era where AI education is of paramount importance. We aim to contribute valuable insights that advocate for equitable learning experiences. We believe serious games can make AI education accessible to all, offering an inclusive and engaging path for learners from diverse backgrounds.

Sonnewald: I am interested in how we bring theoretical constructs and inferences together with observations to meet the needs of modern society. Combining domain knowledge with advanced techniques from data science, I aim to create new insight and accelerate exploration. I primarily work within the ocean and climate realm.

The impact of my work spans academia, national and international policy. It is featured in the NOAA AI strategy 2021-2025, and used in the science basis for New Zealand's Marine Protected Area legislation. I am cited by the European Parliament and the World Meteorological Organization. My over 60 invited talks include to the United Nations ITU, NOAA Research and the DOE, as well colloquia and major conferences. I am Associate Editor for the 'Artificial Intelligence for the Earth Systems' (AIES) journal by the American Meteorological Society, have authored numerous review articles and I publish in high impact journals (Science/Nature). I am committed to raising awareness around climate change, and have contributed to the Carbon brief, held sessions at summer camps and open days at museums.

The 2024 International Women’s Day theme is #InspireInclusion. Why is it important to "inspire inclusion" in the engineering field?

Keenan: The world of engineering has so much to offer people, and they have so much to offer the technology world. It is important to continue fighting for inclusion, as no one deserves to be excluded - and people who want to be involved are not automatically included. Historically, the technology sector has not been inclusive, and many of these barriers stay in place.

I often hear other women and other underrepresented minorities say they do not apply for jobs, clubs, research, etc - as they do not feel qualified - a direct reflection of why we need to inspire inclusion to empower and uplift those who have been underrepresented for decades. I encourage everyone to believe in themselves, shoot for the stars, and never reject yourself from any opportunity - apply and see what happens.

It is important to inspire inclusion to create a generation of women who are empowered and can wholeheartedly belong in the world of engineering - and not have to worry about feeling psychological or physically unsafe. We are the future and therefore we have the power to build each other up and achieve a beautiful technology community. When we inspire others, we inspire ourselves and our passion can immensely impact others.

Shetty: Historically, engineering has been and continues to be male-dominated. It's important to note that in 2023, the ratio of men to women in the field of engineering was 86:14. This compelling data can inspire inclusion and help improve gender diversity. Creating an inclusive environment allows different perspectives to come together and critically think through problems. It's also the only way to obtain diverse views that represent our society at large. In addition to gender diversity, it's equally important to focus on other diverse groups such as ethnicity and the LGBTQ+ community for the same reasons. Inclusion isn't just a nice thing to practice; it's the smartest thing to do. Companies that truly practice diverse hiring and inclusion practices are known to be more profitable.

Sonnewald: Inclusion is a key element for progress. I am convinced that people from different background bring different, and valuable, perspectives that can be brought to bear on some of the toughest problems that we have. The success of interdisciplinary work is an excellent allegory, where someone with a culturally different background can see connections that someone from a background traditionally well-represented may not.

What people or programs have inspired inclusion throughout your journey in engineering?

Keenan: First of all, the University of California, Davis allowed me to be flexible with my major - empowering me to declare a computer science major and inspire inclusion there. The professors, especially Professor Yelena Frid, Professor Philip Rogaway, and Professor Felix Wu, as well as my talented peers have encouraged me everyday to be my best self. My family has mentored me and helped guide me throughout my journey, inspiring me to fight for inclusion.

Women in Computer Science (WiCS) at UC Davis has immensely shaped my college experience and supported me to inspire inclusion. From being a member, to Fundraising Director, and now President of WiCS - I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from talented and inspiring women. Additionally, I now work to plan events that support women technically, professionally, and personally through workshops, social events, and engagement sessions. Seeing firsthand how powerful a community pushing the initiative of women in tech forward is extremely motivating to me to inspire inclusion. The support given to all of the members has empowered me to continue fighting for change.

The open source community has been extremely welcoming and supportive of me technically and professionally. In the summer of 2023, I had the opportunity to intern at Red Hat as Developer Advocate Intern, working on helping developers be successful with Podman Desktop and Red Hat Developer Hub. My manager, Natale Vinto, was extremely supportive and helped me achieve a summer filled with customer workshops, a conference session at IBM TechXChange, articles, and videos. Without his support, I would not be as confident and empowered to fight for inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups. The Linux Foundation was kind enough to select me for the Dan Kohn Scholarship - granting me the opportunity to attend KubeCon North American 2023, making me stronger in the technology industry.

Shetty: One pivotal event that significantly inspired inclusion in engineering for me, was the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) event. I was indeed fortunate to receive a scholarship from UC  Davis that allowed me to participate in this great event. This is the world's largest gathering of women in technology, that provided me a platform where I could witness firsthand the remarkable contributions of women in various fields within the engineering spectrum. The event not only showcased groundbreaking research and technological advancements but also fostered an atmosphere of empowerment, mentorship, and networking. Engaging with diverse perspectives and listening to the stories of successful women in engineering inspired me to strive for excellence and advocate for inclusivity in my career. The GHC scholarship not only opened doors for learning and professional growth but also highlighted the importance of supporting underrepresented groups to create a more inclusive and equitable future in engineering

Sonnewald: Throughout my career in academia, I have been fortunate to have people surrounding me who have helped me cope with the oppressive and regressive attitudes that sadly are pervasive. I have benefited from wonderful and supportive mentors, often from outside my field.

How do you make others feel welcome in engineering and promote diversity and equity in the field?

Keenan: The key philosophy I run with is that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” which drives me every day to welcome others and promote diversity and equity. I do not see others as a competitor - there are enough resources for all in the world of engineering - but instead I see my role as supporting others to improve the community for everyone.

A key way I welcome others in engineering and promote inclusion is through being President of Women in Computer Science. We aim to provide technical, professional, and personal support for anyone interested in industry or academia related to computer science - no matter the major or experience level. Our technical workshops aim to educate all experience levels on Leetcode, Javascript, GitHub, Machine Learning, Academia and more. Our professional workshops give LinkedIn and Resume advice, opportunities to connect with experienced professionals from companies, and mock interviews. Additionally, we are a community and provide social events to feel you have a home in the technology world. These different approaches to computer science aim to have all women feel empowered, strong, and confident when approaching the technical community.

Every day, I fight to represent women and include engineering in my classes, clubs and internships. I love connecting and talking with other women on campus and doing anything in my power to support them on their journey. This includes sharing key opportunities on campus, encouraging them to speak up for themselves, and being a sounding board for when they need to discuss items. I promote diversity and equity by facilitating key conversations around these initiatives and showing up every day to fight for change.

Shetty: Promoting diversity and equity in engineering involves creating inclusive spaces, and one effective way is through conferences and hackathons. By actively encouraging diverse speakers and participants, these events provide platforms for individuals from underrepresented groups to showcase their talents and insights. Additionally, organizing workshops and mentorship programs during conferences can foster a supportive community. Hackathons, when structured to accommodate diverse skill sets and perspectives, become catalysts for collaboration. Implementing inclusive policies, such as accessible venues and diverse panel selections, ensures that everyone feels welcome. These initiatives break down barriers and send a clear message that diversity is valued, contributing to a more equitable and vibrant engineering community.

Sonnewald: I work to recognize excellence. This work comes in many forms, from carefully reviewing application materials, as traditionally underrepresented peoples often lack access to mentoring and coaching, to providing guidance to help talented candidates shine. It is time-consuming and largely goes unacknowledged, but I deeply believe that the work of my group will be better for it. I also perform outreach in the form of attending events and, for example, taking part in public lectures. In my lectures, I am also careful to not use material and examples that conform to regressive stereotypes like binary genders. I also highlight where the insight I teach came from in terms of who the pioneers were, who are often more diverse than students realize. Seeing people represented who are outside of the historical norm in terms of nationality or gender has emboldened me in my insistence that I belong and have important contributions to make, and I hope to similarly inspire the next generation. I also dedicate time for mentoring of students and postdocs, and try to be accessible and make time to provide a safe space to ask questions and seek guidance


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