By  Eric Williamson
UVA Ph.D. student Meriel von Stein, a former software engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA Kennedy Space Center, presents her research that boosts autonomous vehicle safety. (Photos by Tom Daly)

Talent and diversity were on full display this weekend as the University of Virginia School of Engineering hosted CAPWIC – the Capital Regional Celebration of Women in Computing. 

Close to 250 attendees from all over the region gathered to present their work and learn from other women, including mentors who shared their secrets for building successful careers. The annual event is organized through the Association of Computer Machinery, the world’s largest educational scientific computing society.

Nada Basit and Robbie Hott, two UVA computer science professors who served as event co-organizers, helped ensure that the meet would come to UVA this year – its first time hosting. 

“We’re very proud to bring CAPWIC to our students and this area of Virginia; it’s exciting,” Basit said. With significantly more women in computer science at UVA than nationwide, she said, “Representation matters.”

UVA professors Briana Morrison, Angela Orebaugh, Daniel Graham and Upsorn Praphamontripong were also involved in this year’s organizing.

On Friday night, Morrison moderated the first keynote, a panel comprised of members of Charlottesville Women in Tech. They spoke about how women can find their community as emerging professionals. 

Senior research scientist Eileen Krepkovich of Barron Associates, Tech-Girls founder Kim Wilkens and Shenandoah Telecommunications Co. CIO Elaine Cheng provided the lively discussion. 

On Saturday, Melanie Frank, a 1996 B.S. graduate of UVA Engineering’s aerospace program, shared in a second keynote how her dream to become an astronaut led her to her current job, as vice president of technology for Capitol One. 

Dean Jennifer L. West provided opening remarks.

Later that morning, Stephanie Lewandowski, senior director of product delivery at Charlottesville-based software engineering firm WillowTree, spoke about "Leading GenAI Product Delivery." The workshop covered various aspects of artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

UVA Ph.D. student Afsara Benazir answers a question about her research asked by Swapneel Sheth of the University of Pennsylvania, an event organizer pictured at far left. 

UVA graduate students throughout the day provided updates on how their research is furthering technology. Among the presenters: 

  • Elizabeth Palmieri spoke on improving text summation using machine learning models. 
  • Afsara Benazir explained her poster on leveraging the caches on tiny electronic devices that use spoken language commands, in order to improve response times. 
  • Meriel von Stein discussed revamped encoding to make autonomous vehicle sensors more accurate. (Full list of speakers and presenters)

Benazir said she chose UVA foremost “because it’s a great school.” 

She added, “I liked my current professor's research area, which is at the intersection of systems and machine learning.”

Beating the Gender Diversity Odds

Why does UVA consistently track higher in female representation in computer science? Part of this success results from the school’s efforts to create a learning culture geared to be inclusive of women. UVA Engineering’s computer science program has focused on creating non-gender biased curriculum and mentoring programs to encourage diversity.