In the photo on my desktop, twelve-year-old Emma is fast asleep in her new St. Mary’s beanie, surrounded by stuffed animals. She’d received her St. Mary’s admission letter and swag that afternoon, and she wore that beanie for days afterward. As she and I chatted on Zoom the other day, I was struck by how much St. Mary’s helped set her on the extraordinary path she’s chosen. She’s grown from an eager, excited sixth grader into a formidable young woman who’s working on projects that could change how we interface with the digital world.
Emma entered St. Mary’s in sixth grade: after years of homeschooling, she was ready to spread her wings at the school her grandmother, Barbara Callaway, had told her so much about. Today, Emma has a hard time settling on a single St. Mary’s memory that stands out. Ski & Snowboard was great fun because she got to ski with her friends. She liked Game Club and Brainbowl, too, because she was with friends. Favorite class? No hesitation there: Latin, largely because of her classmates and because of Mr. Phillips: “We goofed off but also learned a lot -- it was one of those times when you could do both.”
Emma’s high school days were always packed. “I was with a really great group of people. It was challenging to be split between the two communities [St. Mary’s and her online school] and ballet. I realized how special St. Mary’s was, and I wish I could have done more.” Despite that, her advice to up-and-coming students is to take full advantage: take more math, more computer science! “I wish I’d done more to keep all the options open.”
After graduating from St. Mary’s, Emma studied at Stanford, spent a quarter at Oxford University, danced with and directed Stanford’s ballet company, and minored in history. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science at Stanford and is now pursuing a PhD in computer science at UC Berkeley. With all of that under her belt, I figured I’d get an intriguing answer when I asked her about the most interesting thing she’d done thus far. Without hesitation, she answered: “I got a puppy! It’s been absolutely fantastic. I did all the prep, and I learned that no amount of prep can prepare you for the experience of having a puppy.” Muffin the corgi is a lucky pup indeed!
Endless adventures with Muffin notwithstanding, Emma has had some phenomenal research experiences. She’s part of the UC Berkeley Real-Time Intelligent Secure Explainable Systems (RISE) lab in her second PhD year. She’s published three papers and has presented her work at Stanford, Berkeley, Google, DropBox, and Cloudflare. She shared her work on 2-factor authentication at the recent Fast Identity Online (FIDO) Standards Body meeting, where she connected with security leaders in both industry and academia. She’s a National Science Foundation (NSF) research fellow and a Microsoft Ada Lovelace research fellow. She also works with UC Berkeley’s Diversifying Access to Research in Engineering (DARE) program: the world of research can be difficult to navigate, especially for women, minorities, and first-generation college students, and Emma is committed to “helping open doors for people.”
When I asked her about challenges and failures, she pointed out that academia is full of rejections. “When you’re trying to get published, sometimes you’ll get less great reviews. . . . Being able to take constructive criticism and not take it too personally and use it as a way to improve your work and move forward is a valuable skill that I’m always working on.” Being a woman in a male-dominated field, Emma said she sometimes feels like she’s there by mistake. Having some success has helped her overcome her insecurities, though; everyone gets confused sometimes, she said, and the important thing is always to ask your questions. She’s also learned that she has to believe in her own ideas so she can successfully share them with others.
She’s also been fortunate to have mentors who believe in her. “Raluca [UC Berkeley professor Raluca Ada Popa] and Ion [UC Berkeley professor Ion Stoica] are always there for me,” she says, “for help or for advice, and they always tell me when they think an idea is good or when an idea is bad without making me feel bad.” Emma is also grateful for the continued support of her Stanford mentors, Henry Corrigan-Gibbs, now at MIT, and Professor David Mazières. Above all, she values “having people in your court who will look out for you and who will believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself.”
Looking forward, Emma explained that St. Mary’s mission to “inspire responsible global, national, and local citizens” reflects her own guiding principles. “Having a framework for thinking about not just your work but also how that fits into the larger world has been really important, especially in computer security, where you constantly have to think about the ethical implications of the work that you’re doing, and thinking about the type of world you want to enable through the technology that you’re building. You can’t be just ethical or just technical: you have to think about both sides all the time.”
Emma hopes to build systems that provide stronger security and more privacy. “There’s definitely a lot of tech around making money,” she said, “and privacy is in some ways antithetical to that because if a company doesn’t get your data, then they can’t run their AI algorithms on it, so you don’t see a lot about privacy these days, but it’s really important.” The best way to realize her goals, she thinks, is in academia; research gives her the freedom to pursue projects that may not have making money as their ultimate goal. She’s also strongly committed to teaching and mentoring and in particular reaching out to women and to other groups that are currently underrepresented in technical fields.
St. Mary’s gave Emma a strong foundation, and it will be exciting to see where her many projects, pursuits, and passions take her.
(This article was written by Catherine Dauterman)