Emma Gray: Just Add Water

Emma GrayComputer Science senior and U.S. Navy Midshipman Emma Gray thrives on challenge. She has excelled academically at Rice while diving into multiple extracurricular activities including Naval ROTC, from which she will earn a commission next May. After gradation, she will be a Surface Warfare Officer and will attend Naval Nuclear Power School after her first tour.

Unlike most CS students, her summers in college have been spent with other midshipmen on active-duty cruises. “That is our version of internships,” said Gray. “We spend time shadowing crew members and standing watch under instruction. After freshman year I went to San Diego for our introductory cruise, which lets you experience all of the different warfare communities in the Navy and Marine Corps, and after sophomore year I did a cruise on a submarine. This past summer I went to the Mediterranean aboard an aircraft carrier and did a port call in Italy, which was fantastic.”

Gray came to Rice with a Naval ROTC scholarship, but without having decided on a major. She took COMP 140 on a whim after learning that students did not need to know programming as a prerequisite. “I had no intention of becoming a CS major, but the projects were interesting, so I stuck around for COMP 182 and enjoyed that as well,” she said. “Scott Rixner and Luay Nakhleh are amazing professors who provide a lot of insight while challenging students to do their best.”

Her aptitude for CS was also a surprise: Though COMP 140 has no prerequisites, some students come into the course with programming skills. “I struggled with the initial learning curve. My friends already knew some basics and that pushed me to do better, to keep up with them.”

She has since been hired twice as a teaching assistant for COMP 140. She enjoys helping other students make the same transition from no programming skills to embracing CS as a way to solve real world problems. “One of their first assignments deals with predicting the stock market. It’s a very simple version of financial modeling, but it gives students a chance to see the possibilities. When they think, ‘If I develop this further, I could . . .,’ and then they realize the implications for real life, it is really exciting.”

Emma GrayIn addition to her CS degree, Gray is also working towards a certification through the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership. “RCEL helps you learn how to work on a technical team and how to develop your leadership style,” she said. In RCEL courses, students practice leading their peers through small projects. “We get feedback on our team’s performance and how effectively we led the team. Each challenge is short, such as, ‘build a rocket out of these materials,’ but over time, you develop a variety of different experiences.”

Gray said, “Sometimes computer scientists are stereotyped as being too technical and lacking interpersonal skills, so I think RCEL is great for CS students. We learn how to be on a team and not just work with our heads down all the time.” The program also provides support for other skills, including networking, communication, and mentorship. (Gray serves on RCEL’s Student Mentorship Committee.)

Gray offers encouragement to students as they consider CS or other challenges. “Don’t be afraid to try something you think you might not be good at,” she said. “At the end of my freshman year, I was planning to switch to a different major, but Dr. Rixner encouraged me to stick with CS. I was surprised at first, but as I thought back over the year, I realized I had done pretty well in my CS classes and that I didn’t want to give up on the progress I had made. Of course CS has not always been easy, but it’s a challenge I have always enjoyed.”

She also suggests students consider non-traditional opportunities. “No one in my family has ever been in the military, but here I am. Don’t be afraid to give it a shot.”