Chab Allen: CS=Art+Engineering

CS sophomore Chab AllenRice University sophomore Chabrielle “Chab” Allen loves the creative aspect of Computer Science. “I see it as the merging of art and engineering,” she said. “I loved drawing but didn’t want that to be my career, and CS has endless possibilities for combining it with other fields.”

The QuestBridge Scholar from Roswell, NM said she planned to major in CS when she arrived for O-Week. “I like to learn and I knew this was a field that would allow me to keep learning as long as I want. The little bit of coding I had done in high school covered a range of really random, different areas and that breadth of application was confirmed for me in COMP 140.”

“Being able to create things from scratch, seeing projects come to life on the screen was exciting. One of the most fun projects we tackled in COMP 140 was the Kevin Bacon game, where we modeled the relationships between Bacon and other actors in different movies.”

Allen continued her CS courses that spring with COMP 182, taught by Luah Nakhleh. Near the end of the course, Nakhleh invited students to submit applications for positions as summer researchers, work under an NSF grant for interdisciplinary approaches to big data problems.

“I hadn’t really thought much about research,” said Allen, “but the concept sounded interesting and so I applied. I think a lot of us did, and I was thrilled to be accepted. This summer, my team made a tool for biologists to use to visualize DNA data.”

She was one of three freshmen assigned to the team led by CS Ph.D. student Leo Elworth, who praised the ambition and accomplishments of his undergraduate researchers. “They solved the first aspect of the problem so quickly,” said Elworth, “that we had the rest of the summer to work on extra features like creating a variety of visualizations to illustrate the most prevalent gene tree patterns and where they occur.”

Allen said the team combined several existing backend programs to process the massive sets of genome data, and then created a new user interface so that scientists could visualize their data without having to write their own programs.

Chabrielle "Chab" Allen, CS sophomore“It was pretty early in the project when we realized we could generate graphs using input files and that really caught my attention. The three of us divided up the work based on what interested us most,” said Allen. “Peter was excited about working on the front end, and Travis tackled the statistical data crunching, and I wanted to keep working text files into different plots and graphs so I took on that interface.”

Although Elworth thought their progress was remarkably fast, Allen said they really struggled in the beginning. “Some of our early challenges were just getting the data to download and work on our computers. Downloading the software to create front end interfaces was also difficult, especially for our Windows computers and it took two or three days to figure it out. But then once we had it, it worked really well for us.”

Allen was excited with the final results of their project, and for the applications it had for genetic researchers. “This tool allows researchers to visualizing evolutionary diversity across genomes without having to spend time writing their own programs. Not only do they more quickly get access to the part of their research that interests them most, but more publications can now have standardized illustrations. The more people who use the tool, the more easily these graphs will be read and understood by other scientists.”

Allen advises other CS students to worry less about their rank and experience and try a lot of different things. “Don’t be afraid to apply for roles, just put yourself out there. Even if you aren’t at the top of your class or the best student in your major, even if you don’t get that first, second, or third interview, you learn from everything you try. If you just keep trying, it gets easier.”

She also recommends Rice’s collaborative atmosphere to prospective students in QuestBridge and similar low-income, high-achievement programs.In fact, Allen chose Rice because it lacked the competitive environment she noticed at other universities. “The people here are great, and students really do help each other. It’s a wonderful place to be. I love Rice so much!”