Computer science student first from UD to win Adobe Women in Technology Scholarship

When Kristina Holsapple enrolled as a college student at the University of Delaware — marking the first generation in her family to do so — she originally planned to pursue a career in human resources.

But soon after she began her coursework, the Maryland resident learned she would not be taking one of her favorite subjects, math, beyond her sophomore year. That was not going to work.

Knowing almost nothing about coding or computer science — not even how to make a desktop folder — didn’t stop her from switching majors.

“I was not ready for it,” Holsapple said, recalling her earliest introduction to computer science as an undergraduate in the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences at UD. “But by the end of the semester, I realized this is really where I’m meant to be.”

Despite those humble beginnings, Holsapple is the first student from UD to earn the relatively new Adobe Women-in-Technology Scholarship, which honors “outstanding female undergraduate and master’s students studying artificial intelligence/machine learning, data science, computer science or mobile/web development at North American universities.”

Sunita Chandrasekaran, an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, is one of Holsapple’s key mentors.

“She’s not even going to graduate this semester, but already has all these feathers in her cap,” Chandrasekaran said. “This is a very unique and competitive award, so it takes a lot of effort. An applicant’s CV and resume has to be really rich. It wasn’t surprising to me because I had her in class the previous semester, and it all added up.”

The Adobe scholarship, first launched in 2016, comes with a $10,000 award as well as a free subscription to services and internship opportunities. Holsapple is one of 16 students — including three students from Harvard University — who earned the scholarship during the 2021-2022 academic year.

In addition to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, this Honors College student also is pursuing minors in English, disability studies and human development and family sciences. Holsapple is also a Eugene du Pont Memorial Scholar, the most distinguished merit scholarship available at UD.

Holsapple also recently earned recognition as the Department of Computer and Information Sciences Outstanding Junior Student with the Paul D. Amer Meritorious Award.

“She seems to have an unlimited amount of energy,” said Ray Peters, one of Holsapple’s professors and assistant director of UD’s Honors College. He said Holsapple has excelled not only in her writing and research, but also maintains a challenging honors-based curriculum and extracurricular activities.

Holsapple is active with both Mosaic, a student-administration collaboration dedicated to promoting multidimensional diversity within the Honors College, and the People of All Colors and Communities Together (PACCT) initiatives. Holsapple also was the 2021 Seitz Award recipient.

The 21-year-old researcher this year attended the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) Technical Symposium and presented her findings based on three years of research evaluating the needs of new computer science students, looking at how different levels of prior experience or knowledge impacted their academic experiences. That information, in turn, was used to better inform course instruction to provide the tools students really need to succeed.

“Working with Kristina has been a delightful and remarkable experience,” said Austin Cory Bart, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Sciences and Information who advised Holsapple during this ongoing research project. “She is easily one of the most exceptional students I have ever done research with. I am certain she is going to have a great career.”

Holsapple also is participating in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Healthy ML” group led by Marzyeh Ghassemi, researching how machine learning can be applied to health outcomes and behaviors.

In Chandrasekaran’s lab, though, Holsapple is participating in a project that isn’t just for any junior undergraduate researcher. She, along with three other undergraduates and two graduate students, are working on coding tests needed for the world’s newest and fastest supercomputer housed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The computer system, known as Frontier, secured its spot as the world’s fastest supercomputer.

Specifically, Holsapple is developing tests to validate the system’s compiler, an element all computers need to compile and execute code and provide outputs. Her work is critical to the system’s success, as it will be used in a variety of modeling applications by scientists around the world.

“What she is doing is not writing test code in a little corner,” Chandrasekaran said. “What she’s doing matters for such a big system. No other group is working on what she’s working on. Kristina is a piece of a bigger puzzle.”

Scholarships like the Adobe Women-in-Technology award have played a key role in Holsapple’s academic and research pursuits, as they do for many first-generation college students. Holsapple was simply taking the initiative to find more funding opportunities by searching online for women in technology scholarships when she came across the Adobe Research award and decided to go for it.

“Scholarships that make space for me are really special,” Holsapple said. “I’m really grateful for this scholarship in the way it really validated the idea I have of going into computer science for the good of humanity, and not just to improve the next bank withdrawal fee.”

It’s not all about funding and science, though. It’s also about representation.

“I’m paving the way for people after me being a non-binary woman in tech,” she said. Holsapple pointed to Gloria Jean Watkins, an American author, feminist and activist better known by her pseudonym bell hooks, and said figures like Watkins paved the way for people like her — so it feels only natural for her to do the same for the next, new diverse generation.

“You have to expect to face adversity and at the same time realize your existence in the field is changing the status quo,” she said. “Our existence is an act of resistance.”

While many, including the professors at UD, have been supportive and made Holsapple feel part of the science and engineering community, being open and unapologetic about who she is is not always easy, she said.

Making an impact means managing expectations, Holsapple said. But it’s even better to find people who don’t make you manage your expectations.

Growing up in a small, conservative Maryland community, Holsapple found at UD that she’s able to explore her own identity and connect with new friends and mentors, especially in the Honors College, who lift her up.

“I didn’t really know what it meant to feel like you belong,” Holsapple said. “It wasn’t until I got to UD that I found my voice.”

After Holsapple graduates in 2023, she expects to pursue graduate school or find a job in industry. Whatever career path Holsapple chooses, she said contributing to her community in a positive way through her work is key. Coming from an underfunded, marginalized school system, she hopes to be able to give back through community outreach to let others like her know that there’s a place for them in STEM.

“I never thought computer science was an option for me,” she said. “I want to give young people that moment to realize there are people like you. There is a place for people who want to improve the world through computer science. There’s a need for people who want to improve the world through computer science.”

Article by Maddy Lauria | Photo courtesy of Kristina Holsapple | Illustration by Joy Smoker | June 16, 2022