Illinois CS professor Talia Ringer uses personal experience and a mind for improvement to make a difference in the lives of students. By developing SIGPLAN-M and the Computing Connections Fellowship, they proved that more can be done.
Over their time in higher education, professor Talia Ringer has become captivated with the incredible, years-long process of advising graduate students. And with good reason; the experience becomes about working alongside students as they grow and reach new heights, both for themselves and the field of study.
“When you begin advising a student, there’s a lot of hand holding. You’re walking them through a lot of things. But, at some point, students start doing things where you're like, 'Wow, I couldn't do that.' It's so wild to see when that occurs, and it's so much fun,” Ringer said.
Joining the Illinois Computer Science faculty about two years ago, Ringer had recently earned their Ph.D. from the University of Washington – where they honed a research focus in formal methods and verification. This came after an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland led them to Amazon, where they worked in software development.
While considering technical work and achievement “beautiful,” Ringer said the community has become what motivates them most at this point in their career.
In both elements of their occupation, though, they remain dedicated to making a difference.
Upon realizing that many things about software broke, Ringer concentrated not on debugging it but overhauling how it's programmed.
In terms of the advising process, they don’t want to continue the process that already exists. They want to improve upon it.
The first way this impact began to manifest was through their research community – the Special Interest Group on Programming Languages (SIGPLAN). Despite many valuable mentorship workshops already existing, Ringer noticed a lack of long-term options to impact broader concepts such as accessibility.
Their answer was the formation of the SIGPLAN Long-Term Mentoring Committee (SIGPLAN-M).
“It’s hard to explain my process, but if I have an idea that I think is really important, I just do it,” Ringer said. “So, at the beginning, the best way I could describe forming SIGPLAN-M was spreadsheets and chaos. The essence of what we wanted to create, though, was based on expanding upon the mentorship workshops that already existed.
“While I do genuinely like those workshops and have found them helpful, I was thinking back to what helped me get where I am. And everyone I know who's gotten far has also known the right people.”
And, through SIGPLAN-M, Ringer helped break down that door for more people.
Rather than trying to undo an already established community, they wanted to make that community accessible to “literally anyone who wants to be a part of it.”
Between this goal and a desire to open new lines of mentorship to people who need it, SIGPLAN-M became official in January 2021.
It has since grown to reach over 300-plus mentees and included more than 200 mentors. Further proof of its effectiveness came from influencing the development of a similar entity for a neighboring research community, Computer Architecture Long-term Mentoring (CALM).
Ringer is no longer chair for SIGPLAN-M, passing on that responsibility to a colleague, but they believe in its potential to continue scaling up to impact even more people.
Feedback on SIGPLAN-M has called it “life changing” and a “career saver.”
“It’s awesome to hear that,” Ringer said. “That is even more exciting to me than any of my research successes have been. Research is often about one person or a small group of people, but SIGPLAN-M is reaching so many people.”
They haven’t stopped there, though.
Ringer also believes that mentorship and leadership need to be there for students when unhealthy situations occur. Rather than excusing themselves from situations when things are hard, the true measuring stick of a mentor or leader’s effectiveness may come in listening and understanding students who are struggling.
Ringer understands this first-hand, as they described an unhealthy situation that developed during their Ph.D. studies. They have been open about their own struggles with mental health and explained that this reached a peak during their time at the University of Washington.
Rather than ignoring them, though, Ringer’s own mentors set up a research visit for them to the University of California San Diego.
Not only did they find relief in the new location, but they found productivity again – even co-authoring a paper during their time on the research visit.
It was through that powerful experience Ringer found another way to give back.
Their newly set up Computing Connections Fellowship is in the process of a two-year pilot. Its goal is to provide institution-independent transitional funding for computer science Ph.D. students who need help escaping unhealthy environments.
“There are a lot of situations like this, and I hear about it a lot because I'm open about my own experiences,” Ringer said. “I know the ideal would be to make it so that people are never in these situations to begin with. But, in the meantime, what I'm interested in is making sure that anyone who is in such a situation is safe.
“We have awarded two fellowships already and set up research visits for those fellows. But we would like to expand to reach other research areas.”
As the fellowship continues to become more established, Ringer encourages others who would like to support to do so either by donating or passing along connections to relevant foundations for further funding options.
“What I know for sure is that when you're in the thick of an unsafe situation, and still surrounded by the very things that make it unsafe, it's impossible to think long-term because every day becomes a matter of surviving,” Ringer said. “So, by giving people a way to alter those situations, my hope is we can help them not just think about surviving but about thriving in the long run.”