Photo courtesy of Kristina Holsapple | Artwork by Joy Smoker
June 16, 2022
When Kristina Holsapple enrolled as a student at the University of Delaware – marking the first generation in her family to do so – she originally planned to pursue a career in human resources.
But soon after starting classes, the Maryland resident learned she wouldn’t be taking one of her favorite subjects, math, beyond her second year. It wasn’t going to work.
Knowing next to nothing about coding or computing — not even how to create a desktop folder — didn’t stop her from switching majors.
“I wasn’t ready for this,” said Holsapple, recalling her first introduction to computer science as an undergrad in the College of Engineering. Department of Computing and Information Science at UD. “But at the end of the semester, I realized that was really where I needed to be.”
Despite such humble beginnings, Holsapple is the first UD student to earn the relatively new Adobe Women-in-Technology Scholarshipwhich honors “outstanding female undergraduate and master’s students studying artificial intelligence/machine learning, data science, computer science, or mobile/web development at North American universities.”
Sunita Chandrasekaran, an associate professor in the Department of Computing and Information Science, is one of Holsapple’s key mentors.
“She’s not even going to graduate this semester, but already has all those feathers in her cap,” Chandrasekaran said. “It’s a very unique and competitive award, so it takes a lot of effort. A candidate’s CV and curriculum vitae must be very rich. It was not surprising for me because I had had it in class the previous semester, and it all added up.
The Adobe Fellowship, first launched in 2016, comes with a $10,000 prize as well as free subscription to services and internship opportunities. Holsapple is one of 16 students — including three students from Harvard University — who have been awarded the scholarship in the 2021-2022 academic year.
In addition to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, this Honors College student is also pursuing minors in English, Disability Studies, and Human Development and Family Science. Holsapple is also a Memorial Eugène du Pont scholarship holderthe most distinguished merit scholarship available at UD.
Holsapple was also recently recognized as an Outstanding Junior Student in the Department of Computing and Information Science with the Paul D. Amer Meritorious Award.
“She seems to have an unlimited amount of energy,” said Ray Peters, one of Holsapple’s teachers and deputy director of UD Honors College. He said Holsapple not only excelled in his writing and research, but also maintains a challenging curriculum and extracurricular activities.
Holsapple is active both with Mosaic, a student-administration collaboration dedicated to promoting multidimensional diversity within the Honors College, and with the People of All Colors and Communities Together (PACCT) initiatives. Holsapple was also the recipient of the 2021 Seitz Prize.
The 21-year-old researcher participated this year in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group in Computing Education (SIGCSE) Technical Symposium and presented his findings based on three years of research assessing the needs of new computer science students, examining the impact of different levels of experience or prior knowledge on their academic experiences. This information, in turn, has been used to better inform the teaching of the course to provide the tools students really need to be successful.
“Working with Kristina has been a delightful and remarkable experience,” said Austin Cory Bart, an assistant professor in the Department of Computing and Information who advised Holsapple during this ongoing research project. “She is easily one of the most exceptional students I have ever done research with. I’m sure she’ll have a great career.
Holsapple also participates in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Healthy ML Group led by Marzyeh Ghassemi, who investigates how machine learning can be applied to health outcomes and behaviors.
In Chandrasekaran’s lab, however, Holsapple is involved in a project that is not reserved for just any young undergraduate researcher. She, along with three other undergraduates and two graduate students, are working on the coding tests needed for the world’s newest and fastest supercomputer housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The computer system, known as Frontiersecured his place as the fastest supercomputer in the world.
Specifically, Holsapple develops tests to validate the system compiler, something all computers need to compile and run code and provide output. His work is essential to the success of the system, as it will be used in a variety of modeling applications by scientists around the world.
“What she does is not write test code in a small corner,” Chandrasekaran said. “What she does is important for such a big system. No other group is working on what she is working on. Kristina is one piece of a bigger puzzle.
Scholarships like the Adobe Women-in-Technology Award have played a key role in Holsapple’s academic and research pursuits, as they do for many first-generation students. Holsapple was just taking the initiative to find more funding opportunities by searching online for scholarships for women in tech when she came across the Adobe Research Prize and decided to go for it.
“The scholarships that make room for me are really special,” said Holsapple. “I’m really grateful for this scholarship as it has really validated my idea of getting into IT for the good of humanity, not just to improve future bank withdrawal fees. “
However, it is not all about funding and science. It is also a question of representation.
“I’m leading the way for people after being a non-binary woman in tech,” she said. Holsapple pointed out Gloria Jean Watkinsan American author, feminist and activist best known by her pen name bell hooks, and said figures like Watkins paved the way for people like her – so it’s only natural for her to do the same for the next diverse new generation.
“You have to expect to face adversity and at the same time realize that your existence on the pitch is changing the status quo,” she said. “Our existence is an act of resistance.”
While many, including UD faculty, have been supportive and made Holsapple feel like an integral part of the scientific and technical community, it’s not always easy to be open and unapologetic about who she is, she said.
Having an impact means managing expectations, Holsapple said. But it’s even better to find people who don’t make you manage your expectations.
Growing up in a small, conservative community in Maryland, Holsapple found at UD that she was able to explore her own identity and connect with new friends and mentors, especially at Honors College, who raised her. .
“I didn’t really know what it meant to feel like you belonged,” Holsapple said. “It wasn’t until I came to UD that I found my voice.”
After graduating from Holsapple in 2023, she plans to pursue higher education or find employment in industry. Whatever career path Holsapple chooses, she said it’s essential to contribute to her community in a positive way through her work. Coming from an underfunded and marginalized school system, she hopes to be able to give back through community outreach to let others like her know that there is a place for them in STEM.
“I never thought IT was an option for me,” she said. “I want to give young people this moment to realize that there are people like you. There is a place for people who want to improve the world through computing. There is a need for people who want to improve the world through computing.