Graduate Student Spotlight: Stephanie Nawas

Ph.D. Student, Department of Computer Science

Stephanie Nawas

This spotlight is a part of our 2023 International Women's Day Feature.

What inspired you to study engineering? Describe your path to graduate studies at UC Davis. 

I was a member of a feminist organization in high school, and one day the computer science teacher came to give a talk encouraging young women to sign up for his class. Although I was hesitant, I signed up and got the amazing opportunity to try coding for the first time. I enjoyed computer science courses in undergrad, but didn't realize that I could possibly pursue a Ph.D. until I was a senior! I had always thought that Ph.D. degrees were for geniuses, not people like me. Continuing my studies at UC Davis has been such an amazing experience, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been accepted here under such a supportive advisor. 

Highlight your current research. What do you love about it, why are you excited, and how do you stay motivated? 

My research area lies at the intersection of programming languages and machine learning. Specifically, I am working on strategies to repair and verify the behavior of neural networks with provable guarantees of correctness. My favorite part of my research is that it is such a new area, and there are so many cool ideas to explore! I also love the interdisciplinary aspect of my work, as it provides so many opportunities to build on work in various fields of computer science. Our lab is quite small, but everyone is so supportive of each other. We help each other stay motivated by encouraging and helping each other along the way. My advisor works really hard to create a positive lab culture, and it really pays off to help keep me on track! 

The 2023 International Women's Day theme is #EmbraceEquity. How do you embrace equity in the engineering field? 

I would not be where I am today if not for initiatives to help achieve equity in engineering. I tried coding for the first time thanks to a presentation designed to encourage young women to sign up for computer science. I minored in gender studies in undergrad which gave me specialized support and a deeper understanding of gender inequity in engineering. I was a leader in the multicultural center in undergrad and participated on a STEM advisory board to increase representation of minority students. I was able to try research for the first time thanks to a grant that helps underrepresented students fund their research projects. Currently, I mentor young women and non-binary high school and undergraduate students. I am also the president of Graduate Scholars of Color+ here at UC Davis, an organization that aims to provide advocacy and solidarity among underrepresented grad students. Thanks to equity initiatives that helped me gain my footing in engineering as a woman of color, I am able to help other young women in computer science and promote equity by paying it forward. 

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