Rebecca Smith’s Passion for Research and Teaching

Rebecca Smith, Ph.D. student in computer science at Rice UniversityRebecca Smith’s passion for research is equaled only by her enthusiasm for teaching. Smith, currently a first-year Ph.D. student in computer science at Rice University, said her first opportunity to do research on a university level came early.  “During my freshman year I took the intro CS sequence – COMP 140 (Computational Thinking) and COMP 182 (Algorithmic Thinking), and they were my favorite classes. Then that summer I was hired to do research here at Rice with one of my COMP 182 professors, Dr. Scott Rixner, and that experience cemented my decision to be a CS major.”

Research opportunities for freshmen

Smith said, “It’s not uncommon for freshmen to have the opportunity to do research in CS at Rice. In the summer I worked for Scott [Rixner], he hired about four freshmen, and I know Luay [Nakhleh] and Devika [Subramanian] hired a couple as well. At the time, Scott’s research group was developing an embedded Python run-time system targeting resource-constrained microcontrollers, and I was developing Python applications to test the system. As I gained more experience, my work transitioned from the application level to the system level.” After her sophomore year, Smith explored employment in the tech industry, interning at Microsoft. “It was a great experience, but I realized I preferred the freedom of research.”

More Research Opportunities with Masters Fellowship

By her junior year, Smith was already interested in graduate work and the opportunity to continue her research. “The Master of Science (MS) Fellowship program seemed like a really great opportunity. I was interested in a Ph.D., but the Master’s allowed me to test the waters before diving into such a big commitment.” The fellowship is offered to up to four Rice undergrads each year, and pays for summer research work at the university as well as tuition and fees for a fifth year of study, plus a stipend for research that year. Smith continued, “I stayed in Houston the summers after my junior and senior years to do research at Rice. Then after I graduated with my Bachelor’s, I stayed another year and defended my thesis at the end of that time, covering the research I’d done over the two summers and that year. In May 2015, I walked through the Sallyport again with my matching MS diploma.”

NSF Graduate Fellowship

Smith walked through the Sallyport with more than an MS diploma that year.  In April 2015, she had been awarded a National Science Fellowship (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.  The award covers a significant portion of the costs of researched-based graduate study for three years, and Smith was excited about the opportunity for additional research. “Even before I started that fifth year, I realized I enjoyed the opportunity that research gave me to creatively attack open-ended problems, and I knew I wanted to continue on to do a PhD. I’m a systems researcher, so there’s a really nice balance of design and implementation in the research I do.”

Approachable Instructors

She had not originally planned to stay at Rice for her third degree. “I applied to four schools, and it was a pretty agonizing decision process, since they each had different pros and cons.  But the approachability of the CS faculty at Rice was one of the factors that played into my decision to stay.  If I want to meet with my adviser, I just walk down the hall and say, ‘Hey, do you have a little free time later today?’ And we meet.”

Smith has also been available to students through her own office hours as an instructor. “One of my big motivations for completing my Ph.D. is that I love teaching; I always have. My adviser, Scott Rixner, teaches COMP 140, the biggest class in the department with three different sections, and last semester I had the opportunity to co-teach with him. We spent the entire day in Brockman 101, teaching three back-to-back sections. I love teaching COMP 140, because I really enjoy working with freshmen.”

She said, “But Scott’s teaching a grad class instead this semester, partly because I asked him to.” Apparently, Rixner was trying to determine what classes he would teach in the spring when Smith lobbied for a graduate level course. This semester, Rixner is teaching COMP 528, System-Level Virtualization, and Smith is enrolled, which means she spends a lot of time with her adviser.

Although she still has time left to finish her Ph.D., Smith is already looking ahead. “I would love to be a faculty member at a university that has a good balance between research and teaching, perhaps a small liberal arts college. I went to the Grace Hopper Conference last fall and attended a panel on teaching and research in small liberal arts colleges. That gave me more insight into what the balance would be like, and reassured me that while teaching is highly valued, there would still be ample opportunities for research.”