CS + X Graduates Use Their New Blended Degrees to Open Doors
Some of the earliest graduates of Illinois Computer Science’s CS + X blended-degree program were awarded their diplomas this spring. Illinois CS talked with three of them, Sushma Adari, Dan Gross, and Brendan McMorrow, as they leave campus and begin the next phases of their lives.
"The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is updating and reinvigorating a number of traditional majors by combining them with computer science. The reasoning is that liberal-arts, arts, and agricultural fields increasingly encompass data analysis that requires computer-science skills.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education
All three shared some common experiences in what was a pioneering four years on campus. The program is among the first of its kind and is designed to meld a rigorous education in CS with equally demanding courses of study in other fields—anthropology, astronomy, chemistry, crop sciences, linguistics, or music—with more on the way.
The three graduates all saw CS + X as a way to combine two things they were drawn to, as well as allowing them to avoid giving up one or the other as they began college. In one case, choosing CS + X redefined just how much the CS half of the equation meant to the student.
Adari, Gross, and McMorrow also all found the workload to be challenging but manageable. And all found that their unusual degrees were conversation starters with potential employers.
“Most of them had never seen this dual degree,” Gross said.
But there were also differences in how each student had to approach combined majors, and in what the degrees will immediately allow each to do.
When Brendan McMorrow was preparing to graduate, he found a company that was looking for employees with backgrounds in both CS and the natural sciences.
So DeepMind, the London-based artificial intelligence research firm, hired McMorrow based on the CS + Chemistry degree he earned this year.
“My background was a perfect match,” he said, explaining that he will be moving to London to work as what the company calls a science engineer. “I’m going to be joining a group of research scientists and engineers to explore AI-assisted scientific discovery within the biological sciences.”
Before college, McMorrow saw himself eventually going to medical school, following the same path that many of his family members have taken into medicine.
But during an advanced placement computer science class in high school, the St. Louis native found he really loved the subject.
Even after deciding to enroll at Illinois, he saw CS + Chemistry as a way to stay on a pre-med course while learning more about computation.
Then his plans changed.
“Once I was at Illinois, I slowly fell in love with computer science and couldn’t give it up to study medicine,” McMorrow said.
McMorrow minored in molecular and cellular biology and worked in a research lab, tasks that he said made an already substantial workload larger.
But McMorrow said they also provided some of his favorite moments from college.
He developed GPU-accelerated algorithms to process electron microscopy data at the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group. And McMorrow worked on molecular dynamics software during two summers at a lab at Washington University.
“Having a solid background in chemistry and biology allowed me to better understand the problems in those domains and figure out how to solve them,” he said. “These research programmer positions are usually paid, too, which is great for a college student.”
Though McMorrow put his medical school plans aside, his degree allowed to him to hold tight to a core desire that drove him toward medicine in the first place.
“I grew up wanting to use science to help people,” he said.
“It was really easy to get recruiters and interviewers interested in my work”
As she searched for a job ahead of her 2018 graduation, Sushma Adari (BS CS + Astronomy) noticed the degree to which all of the people interviewing her were curious about her novel major.
“It was an excellent conversation starter,” she said. “It was really easy to get recruiters and interviewers interested in my work.”
Growing up in Belle Mead, New Jersey, she was interested in astronomy and physics, but wanted to find a college program that also would let her explore math and statistics.
“When reviewing UIUC's major list, the CS + Astronomy major caught my eye,” Adari said. “I knew that CS was a very applicable subject and would help open a lot of doors for me both in and outside of my astronomy and physics interests.”
She found the work challenging, on both sides of her major – “It was definitely very rigorous” – and with very little overlap in what she was learning in the two disciplines.
But Adari also found a high energy level she believes is derived from being part of a new program on the frontier of technical education.
“The best part of my major is the amount of excitement associated with it,” she said.
Adari now will use her degree at financial services firm Northern Trust in Chicago. She will be part of the company’s rotational development program, in which employees work in a variety of roles to develop both technical skills and business acumen. After completing those rotations, she will be assigned to a permanent team.
“When it comes down to it, they’re both problem-solving”
In high school in La Grange in the Chicago suburbs, Gross took both advanced-placement chemistry and advanced-placement computer science classes.
“And I loved both,” he said.
But with deadlines approaching for college applications, he assumed he would have to choose one.
Then he sat through a University of Illinois admissions presentation at his school and, while thumbing through a brochure, spotted a major he had never heard of that might keep both of those doors open: CS + Chemistry.
There was hard work, for sure – comparing notes with his Business-major brother, Gross found his homework load was heavier.
But long before he earned his degree, CS + X presented Gross with opportunities.
Through a Students Pushing Innovation (or SPIN) internship, he worked at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, helping develop a faster and more accurate method for mesh refinement used to display geometric shapes in visual computer simulations. Gross presented his research at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research in April.
He also found surprising common ground between his two apparently disparate subjects.
“I went into it completely expecting two distinct subjects, and I would jump back and forth -- inorganic chemistry versus data structures, the actual topics are completely different,” Gross said. “But when it comes down to it, they’re both problem-solving. I found over time there was this thought process and this problem-solving methodology that I’ve adopted that helped me through both subjects.”
Gross will soon start work as a software developer for trading firm IMC Financial Markets in Chicago, a position where he expects to use much more of the CS side of his degree than chemistry.
“Further down the road I’d like to combine the two,” he said. “Computational chemistry is a growing field.”