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Senior Spotlight: Taneisha Arora Pursues Her Passions, From Working in Industry to Running a Bakery

For the past three years, Taneisha Arora has been double majoring in software engineering and data science, straddling all three departments in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). With software engineering being offered by the Department of Informatics jointly with the Department of Computer Science, and data science offered through the Department of Statistics, the double major supported her work at the intersection of machine learning and statistics. In addition to her studies, Arora volunteered for the AppJam+ program, mentoring middle school students on STEM concepts, and won a “Best Web App” hackathon award. Then, she spent the past summer in Boulder, Colorado, interning at Google. Now, as she starts her senior year, she decided to swap her software engineering major for a minor in ICS, allowing her more time to focus on her research and take classes that excite her.

Tell me about your decision to double major and then change it your senior year.
I started out as a software engineering major, but after talking with my dad, we decided that because the ratio of raw data to the people who can actually extract useful insights from it is constantly growing, now is a better time than any to learn the art of data science! I was still extremely curious about operating systems, algorithms and software infrastructure, and I felt that a more eclectic education would better prepare me for the real world, so I added the data science major instead of switching to it.

The neatest thing about this combination of majors has been the opportunity to simultaneously develop a technical and theoretical understanding of statistics, mathematics and computer science fundamentals while also learning about industry practices, software design principles and project management.

While I could have kept both majors and graduated on time, I decided this year to take a step back and — rather than finish up my requirements — follow my curiosity and learn about things that fascinate me. Ultimately, my desire to keep that spark of excitement for learning burning bright is what led me to swap my major for a minor.

Have you had a favorite professor or class at UCI?
I’ve had quite a few actually! My favorite professors include Anton Burtsev, who taught CS 143A and really cared about us understanding the material, and Professor Andre van der Hoek, who taught INF 121: Software Design and is easily one of the coolest professors, especially when it comes to encouraging creativity. I have also enjoyed my classes with Professor Rich Pattis, a really quirky guy with so much wisdom.

My favorite computer science class thus far has to be CS 122B, the project course on databases and web apps taught by Professor Ray Klefstad and teaching assistant Kelly McKeown. Although it was definitely the class that I had to work for the most, it was undoubtedly the one from which I have learned the most. To program four different micro-services and an API gateway to bring them all together, in addition to designing a fully functional and intuitive web front end (following a one-page design), all in 10 weeks, was the most unbelievable academic experience.

Although my opinion might change after I take Bayesian Statistics this winter, my favorite statistics course has been Stats 120B. We proved the Central Limit Theorem, learned about the cool properties of distributions and the power of moment generating functions, studied computing likelihoods from density functions, and so much more. This was also when the idea of a random variable finally became concrete. I would have to attribute the awesomeness of this class to Professor Weining Shen, who is an absolute genius.

What has been the best part of your experience at UCI?
My entire experience here at UCI has been the best! I attribute this to the incredible professors and mentors who have been super encouraging, approachable, and genuinely willing to help, in addition to all the really cool, smart, quirky people in the School of ICS I have met through group projects, club events and classes. Opportunities like becoming a lab tutor and an AppJam+ mentor, and conducting research with Professor van der Hoek and with Statistics Ph.D. student Michelle Nuno have simply reinforced my high opinion of UCI and everyone in ICS.

Can you talk more about your tutoring and these research opportunities?
During my first two years at UCI, I was a lab tutor for ICS 32, 33 and 46. It was so exhilarating to stare at what, in essence, is foreign code, figure out why it is broken or how to solve the problem, and pose questions to ultimately guide the person I am helping into discovering the solution.

This led to me apply to be an AppJam+ mentor. Being able to mentor a team of middle school kids to turn their wildly creative ideas into a tangible app to showcase was an absolutely memorable experience.

In the summer of my sophomore year, I randomly emailed Professor van der Hoek and Michelle Nuno (my instructor for Stats 7) and asked if they had any research projects I could work on, and what do you know? They did! I have been working with them on two different projects ever since.

How was it working as a Google intern this summer?
It has been an absolutely incredible experience! Over the course of the summer, I built some debugging tools for Google’s Search Notification scheduling system. My project took quite a few unexpected but very exciting and welcome turns. Talking to engineers and asking them tons of questions about what they were working on was always fun.

In addition to doing some really fun technical stuff during my internship, I also got to showcase my other hobbies. I taught two cooking classes to other Googlers, and I learned how to do a handstand with my host manager. It was an amazing summer.

Taneisha Arora teaching a cooking class at Google during her summer internship.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?
My biggest pieces of advice are, first, take the classes that are known to be really hard, because those are the classes from which you learn the most — and also take a ton of project classes. Second, talk to your professors and develop genuine connections with them right from the start. Finally, actively look for opportunities outside of schoolwork that will let you either apply what you have learned in class or force you to pick things up on your own.

What are your plans for the future?
My immediate plan after graduation is to get a job and gain some real-world experience. Eventually, however, I am determined to come back to school to get a Ph.D. in an area that lies at the intersection of statistics and machine learning. The fact that I don’t yet know that area of study is why I want to postpone going back to school until I have scraped as much knowledge as I can working in industry, with experts in the fields that I am most curious about. After getting a Ph.D., I want to return to industry as a dangerous force to be reckoned with in my chosen field of study. After that, I hope to open up a little bakery in the foothills of the Rockies and travel to countries to teach students who have few educational opportunities.

But first, I plan to attend AI@UCI club meetings more regularly this year and to participate in a ton more hackathons!

Shani Murray