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From Dance to Big Data

News Story

It all started with customizing her MySpace page years ago. Now Pace student Briana Vecchione ’16 is taking technology by storm, from working on a research project for Microsoft to analyze the network flow of Citi Bike to developing digital ship navigation controls as part of a team in Helsinki, Finland, to interning for the Federal Reserve in DC.

Clickety-clack. Is that tap dancing you hear? You wouldn’t be totally off-base to think so, because when Briana Vecchione ’16 first came to Pace she intended to pursue a career in musical theater. Since then, however, she’s traded her tap shoes for UNIX—which means that rapid-fire percussion you hear coming from her direction is more likely the sound of her fingers dancing on her keyboard while writing code.

While that might sound like an unusual change of paths, for Vecchione the switch to computer science was natural. “I was auditioning in the city, but I just found that it wasn’t entirely fulfilling,” she explains. “Instead, what I was really drawn to was my Intro to Computer Science class.” Immediately she felt connected to the work, realizing that the skills she was using in the course were the same ones she had passively picked up during MySpace’s heyday, when she had spent time designing her own layouts and customizing her page. “I really liked doing that then, and when I was reintroduced to it in college, I just really took to it.”

It’s obvious that she made the right choice. A couple of years in, Vecchione is a Pforzheimer Honors College student, a member of computer science honorary society Upsilon Pi Epsilon, and has already done a good deal of impressive work both at Pace and beyond. Her primary interest these days lies in data science. “It’s really important to me to work in cause-oriented technology,” she says, “meaning technology that has a real-world impact.”

Last summer, she worked at Microsoft’s competitive Data Science Summer School (DS3), where she worked on a project analyzing the network flow of bike-sharing programs, focusing specifically on New York’s Citi Bike program. “Citi Bike has a congestion problem,” she explains. “People are navigating from residential areas into business areas in the mornings and then back in the evenings, so there aren’t enough to stations to hold all the bikes. Right now they employ vans to redistribute bikes all day every day, which is extremely cost-ineffective, so we implemented an algorithm that uses rider patterns to reroute the riders based on an availability system.” After presenting her work at ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference, her team was awarded second place nationwide for undergraduate research.

She was also nominated by Pace faculty to be a part of a Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems program called the Product Development Project. Working with Aalto University in Finland, her international team worked on maritime engineering, developing digital ship navigation controls to replace the unintuitive manual levers and dials that are currently in use. She had the opportunity to travel to Helsinki twice for the project—first last October to meet her team, then in May to present their work at the annual gala. Their sponsor, ABB Marine Systems, is already showing off her innovative prototype in internal meetings in hopes of starting a movement in the maritime industry toward modern software-based controls.

These days, the traditionally white-male-dominated computer science industry is making a push to be more inclusive, so being a woman developer isn’t as uncommon as it once was. “Pace actually has an above-average number of women in computer science,” says Vecchione. “I’ve found that I’ve had a ton of support at Pace, and being a woman in computer science hasn’t deterred me in any way.” Of course, some old prejudices still persist, and out in the field she admits that she might still hear a sexist remark now and then. “But I’ve actually run across much less of that at Pace,” she says, indicating that while things aren’t perfect, they’re definitely improving.

In her spare time, Vecchione is actively supporting the push for inclusiveness. Recently she participated in an International Women’s Day hackathon, creating a social media platform designed to help younger girls get interested in coding. Earlier this year she also co-founded one of the very first chapters for Lean In’s computer science and engineering division, a circle for women in tech at Pace’s New York City Campus to share stories and resources. “We have resume workshops and guest speakers who come in and talk to us about internship opportunities or personal experiences,” she explains. (Those interested can find more information on the group’s Lean In page.) And she hasn’t completely given up tap dancing, either—she still performs with her former company in Los Angeles when she gets the chance.

Overall, Vecchione has found Pace to be a highly nurturing environment, especially with regard to the network it provides for its students. She was first alerted to the Microsoft opportunity, for example, by Christelle Scharff, PhD, the chair of the computer science department in New York, and Vecchione’s most recent internship this summer as a data science intern under the Office of the Chief Data Officer for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in Washington DC came through a Seidenberg graduate student who had previously worked at the Fed. In the same vein, her project in Helsinki has allowed her to expand her network to a global scale, making possible all kinds of potential opportunities in the future. “The Seidenberg School has an intensely tight community,” she says. “We have a network of people who are just insanely helpful and provide incredible opportunities for you.”


Want to see Vecchione talk women in tech? On September 15, she will join Cassidy Williams from Clarifai, Shawndra Hill from Microsoft, and Rachel Reese from Je Big Dream in a panel discussion hosted by ChickTech NYC at Sony Wonder Lab. The discussion will take place after a screening of the documentary Big Dream, which follows the intimate stories of seven young women who are breaking barriers and overcoming personal challenges to follow their passion in science, math, computing, and engineering. 

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