Alumni Q&A: McKell Woodland on Preparing for Grad School through Undergraduate Research
McKell Woodland published more papers by the time she graduated ACME in 2018 than most PhD students have published by the time they graduate. Now she is starting her second year of a Computer Science PhD at Rice University this fall and worked as a data science intern at Microsoft this summer. I had the chance to interview her about her secrets to success and getting accepted into a top Computer Science PhD program. She shared that it came down to research, research, and more research. It was fascinating to hear her take on ACME, deciding to get a PhD, and the insane amount of research she has done. I’m sure you’ll walk away from the interview transcript below just as impressed as I was, and hopefully more knowledgeable about what it takes to get into a top PhD program in Computer Science.
CH: Hi McKell! It’s great to have this chance to talk with you. Can you tell me a little about yourself and what you’re doing post-ACME?
MW: I just finished up my first year in a Computer Science PhD program at Rice University. Even though I’m in the Computer Science program, my main research advisor is actually at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where I’m working in a cancer imaging lab. It’s the Imaging Physics Department and we work on cancer imaging technology. I also have an internship at Microsoft this summer in security and compliance as a data science intern.
CH: That sounds very impressive, especially having an internship already after your first year in your PhD. Was your ACME Emphasis in computer science?
MW: Yes, it was!
CH: How did you become interested in computer science and applied math?
MW: When I came to BYU I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had tested out of all of my math classes because of high school AP classes. My Fall semester I didn’t take any math classes and I realized that I really missed them! It’s a little embarrassing how little thought went into it, but truly I decided to major in math because I just missed math. I loved it and figured there was probably a lot of cool things I could do with it. ACME was in its very first years, or at least I hadn’t heard of it my Freshman year. I went on my mission and came back two years later and in one of my math classes a girl in the ACME major came in and told the class about ACME. I got excited and thought, “OK, why not!?” It sounded more applicable to the real world and I thought I should do it. As I was preparing to enter ACME and thinking about my emphasis, I had just taken CS 142, which is required for math majors. It was one of my favorite classes I have ever taken–I loved it. I finished all the projects very fast and just ate it up. So that’s why I decided to have my emphasis in computer science. A lot of these decisions were just based off of what I love to do, and I figured I could probably do something with it in my life.
CH: That’s an excellent story! I think loving something is a great reason to choose a major. What was it particularly about ACME versus the normal math major that sparked your interest and encouraged you to switch?
MW: Honestly, I don’t remember! I just remember being in the classroom when the girl talked about ACME and being very excited. I don’t know what it was that she said. I feel like a lot of my journey has been revelation from God helping me out a little bit. I just got really excited and felt God had led me to the right path.
CH: Was it this same excitement that led you to a PhD?
MW: Yes! I wanted a PhD for a very long time–like in high school, I didn’t know why, but I really wanted a PhD. I always thought I was going to go the PhD route. But then my senior year some job opportunities came my way. I got a full time offer from Microsoft that was very tempting and I started to think about whether the PhD route would be the best or if it was a random thing I wanted to do without knowing why. That decision came down to another revelation process, realizing that God has given me the desire to get a PhD for very long time for a reason, and it was the right path. I’m very grateful that I decided to go that way.
CH: I know Rice has an excellent PhD program in Computer Science. Can you share more about what you did to get accepted to such a great program?
MW: I would say that it’s because I got into research very early. I just did whatever research I could. My sophomore year of college, the first research opportunity I heard of was in the Instructional Psychology and Technology Department. They hired me on to do SQL. I knew nothing about SQL! But I picked it up because I wanted to do research. I got two papers published with them going into my junior year, and that really helped me. That research opportunity led to a chance to work with a math professor through the mechanical engineering department of BYU. It was pure math research, and because of this research experience I got accepted into the NSA for their summer internship, which is another prestigious math research internship. I also did research with Dr. Jarvis, which was more applied math research than the previous research I had done. And then I actually did a year of research at BYU after I graduated because I thought I was going to get my PhD at BYU. I was there until life happened and I realized I wasn’t supposed to get my PhD at BYU. But it was still a good experience, because in the end I had a total of a year and a half of computer science research with Dr. Wingate. For me it was one research opportunity leading to another for my time at BYU. By the time that I applied to Rice I had– well, quite a few papers, I can’t even remember how many how many I got published! I think I had five papers and I helped write the ACME labs, which I also put on my application. I think Dr. Jarvis and some of the other ACME professors helped me out a lot by writing great letters of recommendation for me. I think a combination of all of these things helped me get into the program.
CH: That’s an exceptional resume. If you were going to give advice to another student, would you boil it down to “pursue research opportunities as often as possible?”
MW: Yes, and it wasn’t necessarily what kind of research I did that was so important. It was just the fact I had done a lot of research, which showed that I knew how to do it.
CH: What about when it came to test scores in your applications? Did you feel the ACME material helped you have a leg up versus other applicants, or did you still need to put in a lot of time on these exams?
MW: At the beginning I was thinking of a math PhD, which is kind of different because you need to take the Math GRE. I studied for that one and I bombed it miserably, actually. I never took an abstract algebra class and I didn’t remember some of the earlier concepts. It was actually good because I realized a pure math PhD wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t study for the math portion of the normal GRE and ended up doing totally fine. I would say ACME 100% prepared me for that. If people are thinking of taking the Math GRE, you’re going to need to do extra to prepare. But if it’s the math portion of the normal GRE, you’ll probably do alright.
CH: Great. I want to change the topic away from graduate school preparation. We’ve had a lot of women in ACME who have loved the program, but there also seem to be a lot of women at BYU who are not interested in being a math major. Did you feel like ACME was a major that you had a positive experience in as a woman? Do you have any experiences you want to share with other women currently in ACME or thinking of joining?
MW: I think I was very blessed to be in a cohort with about 30-40% women.
CH: Wow, that’s a lot more than my cohort!
MW: Yes, I think it was because it was after the mission age change. We had a group of women who had just come home from missions and a group of women who never went on missions. So there was a big overlap of these two groups and my cohort had more women than the cohort before or after. I had a very unique experience because of that and I loved the women I met in ACME! I felt it was a “Girl Power” thing–there were incredible women in my cohort that are doing incredible things. They are still some of my good friends and I talk to them all the time and we help each other out with problems. I think something that is wonderful about ACME and very different from other programs is that it’s not an individual program. It’s meant to be a team program where you help each other out. It’s not just you doing all the homework assignments, but you do it with a team. I think anybody who is willing to do the work can do ACME and do incredible things because of the team-based aspect. It’s been one of the biggest blessings in my life because of the network and connections I built. I still talk to them all the time.
CH: I agree that cohort unity is a big draw to ACME–it was a wonderful experience being with everybody. Can you share where you see yourself in five or ten years? What is your vision post-PhD?
MW: I would love to become a professor. Academia is my main goal. The reason why I went to Microsoft this summer is because I’ve tried to get a variety of different experiences and I’ve never worked at a big tech company before. I want to be in a position where I could help mentor people deciding where they want to go in industry or academia or anything else. I love research, so I hope I can do research. I love teaching, so I hope I can do that, too. That’s kind of the dream right now, we’ll see what happens!
CH: Do you have any other thoughts for current ACME students or advice for them?
MW: I guess I have two thoughts. One, ACME is very hard, very rigorous, but it is very worth it. If you put in the work, you will get the reward. There are some absolutely incredible opportunities that come from the ACME program and what the ACME program builds your character to be. Really put in the work and help other people too, because it’s hard on everyone. Two, there are tons of different paths you can follow out of ACME, so be open to new opportunities. Get as much experience as possible because experience goes a very long way in tech and academia. It’s more than just grades–you can’t just focus on grades and expect to get a really great job. I would say experience is worth more than grades in most cases. For me personally, I needed to seek out revelation on what to do and trust that the opportunities that came up and the opportunities that were closed were really part of a greater plan God had for me in my life. It’s wonderful to trust that.
CH: Thank you so much for your advice and for your time! It’s been great to get to know you. Good luck in your internship and PhD program!