PINC student Kimberly Tsui paying it forward and swimming in the code cloud

By PINC student Kimberly Tsui

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I am not the typical student. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology: Concentration in Microbiology from SFSU in 2007. I am currently a full-time staff member in the Biology Department. I have been married for 15 years. I have 2 children in elementary school, for whom I am the sole caregiver every week day. Additionally, my son has special needs which requires behavioral and speech therapy since he was 2 years old, all of which severely limits my schedule.

Being a busy Mom, out of school for 10 years, while maintaining a full-time job, I wondered, how I could ever take on learning something that I knew absolutely nothing about. Plus, I have always been technologically challenged, I have never enjoyed playing video games, and Math was not my best subject, so for me learning computer science was unthinkable!

I first heard about the PINC Program from a flyer and attended their informational luncheon to learn more about this seemingly fantastical opportunity for a complete novice to learn coding applicable to Biology in a short 2-year program with no Computer Science (CS) experience required. Just the idea was unheard of and I was convinced it sounded way too good to be true.

“I applied, but assumed I would not be accepted”

Attending this meeting helped me to break through my mental barrier that told me CS was too difficult for me. After serious consideration and much trepidation, I decided to take the plunge and submit my application, assuming (and kind of hoping) that I would denied because I was too old, or out of school too long, or outcompeted by better student applicants. Lucky for me they decided to take a chance. When I found out I was accepted into the first cohort, I was both honored and terrified at the same time. Now I am amazed every day at how much I have learned in such a short period of time about a subject I originally felt I could never ever understand.

Getting started

CSc 306 utilized App Inventor, which provided the basic structure of coding blocks without having to worry about the syntax. This was a great introduction to coding because it allowed us to create a software application to familiarize us with the concept of coding. Then, we moved onto Java and over the next few semesters: Data Structures, CSS, HTML, Javascript, PHP, AJAX, and MySQL. All combined, these CS courses turned out to be a lot more difficult than I ever could have imagined. Thankfully, the faculty successfully introduced all these new languages and concepts in a way that truly anyone could understand using real world comparisons and examples.

While in CSc306, I quickly realized coding truly was an alien language, based on an alien alphabet, using alien logic. Luckily, with the support of the PINC mentors, dedicated faculty and staff and lots, and lots, and lots of practice, I am so much more comfortable looking at coding, understanding what the code is supposed to do, finding online resources, and even writing my own programs than I ever thought possible. I’ve taken many difficult courses over my lifetime, but learning CS has been the most difficult academic challenge I’ve ever encountered.

“I had to learn that it’s OK I can’t remember everything and that I am supposed to “Google” questions”

During this stint into the world of CS, I’ve had to completely change my learning style and accept that it’s OK I can’t remember everything and that I am supposed to “Google” questions. That being said, I also realized that employing this method to obtain information also meant you needed to have a clear understanding of your goal to adapt the online information to fit your specific needs. Coding is a lot like cooking. First, you need to figure out what you want to make. Are you baking a cake or making a salad? Then, you need to troubleshoot, research, collaborate, and find the tools required to create the cake or salad you’re trying to make. There are endless ways to prepare cakes, salads, and programs, alike.

Mentoring opportunities

After only my first semester in the PINC program, a few members of our cohort, decided to share the fun and excitement of our newfound App Inventor knowledge to teach middle school girls to code during EYH 2016. In addition, I was also able to be a near peer mentor to 5 undergraduate students during the PINC Summer Program 2017 where we learned R Programming, trained them in technical manuscript literacy, scientific presentations, and in applied research. My group presented our poster, “Quantifying the Relationship of Google searches and STI Rates” at the SFSU Summer Research Symposium. I really enjoyed both of these mentoring opportunities and I had a blast working together in collaborative learning environments.

There is no way I could’ve ever imagined the amount of frustration and elation involved in Computer Science. Coding became so addicting that time would fly by so fast, it was morning before I even realized it. Don’t get me wrong, the challenges presented by these CS PINC courses were almost unbearable, but being in a cohort surrounded by only PINC peers, all struggling and collaborating together, really made all the difference.

Computer Science in my future

I look forward to using CS more in my current job and, once my children are a little more independent, I hope to explore the possibility of getting my Master’s of Science degree incorporating Computer Science into Biology. I am also happy that I understand so much more about the technological world around me that I’ve tried to ignore for so long. I can no longer say that my children understand more about technology than I do.

Thank you to all the PINC Program faculty for taking a chance on me and helping me to venture out of my comfort zone and develop an understanding of computer science and the technology around me. This experience has been amazing and truly unforgettable. I can’t wait to continue working on our app next semester!

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