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Megan Olsen ('05)

Alumna Megan Olsen

Megan Olsen
Associate Professor and Interim Department Chair
Department of Computer Science at Loyola University Maryland
Class of ’05

I serve as an associate professor and interim department chair of the Department of Computer Science at Loyola University Maryland. After graduating from Virginia Tech, I earned my master’s (‘09) and Ph.D. (‘11) from University of Massachusetts Amherst. My research currently focuses on improving simulation approaches and validation, with a focus on complex systems, with recent work published in simulation conferences, book chapters, and IEEE Transactions on Reliability. I am a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Upsilon Pi Epsilon, and Golden Key International Honour Society.

I strongly believe that anyone can learn computer science, if only they are given access and encouragement. Since 2006, I have been working to increase access and awareness about computing to underrepresented students, particularly girls and young women. This includes giving talks on broadening participation in computing to K-12 students, running workshops and summer camps aimed at middle and high school girls, and organizing the Maryland Affiliate of the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award since its inception in 2012. 

I also bring this philosophy to my teaching, where I encourage students to try computer science, and to understand that it's never too late to learn a new skill. I currently live in Maryland with my husband and daughter, and enjoy spending time outside, reading, studying Japanese, and playing games in my free time.

How did the department equip you for the ‘real world’...

The Virginia Tech Computer Science Department equipped me for the real world via both academic and social opportunities. Clearly the department provides an excellent education, but the opportunities to work as an undergraduate teaching assistant (UTA), and be a part of two different research labs set me on a career path that I didn't anticipate at that time. The research mentoring and encouragement to pursue a Ph.D. from Dr. Santos made me aware of opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise thought of as a student, and the chance to work on publishable research as a senior was an opportunity I am glad not to have passed up. 

The mentorship from my UTA professors, in particular Dave McPherson and William McQuain, helped me to recall my love of teaching and begin to learn about grading and course management. These are two activities that are fundamental to my current career as a faculty member at a liberal arts college. Many of the computer scientists I am in touch with now are people I met at Virginia Tech. I am thankful for that beginning network the university provided. 

Being a Virginia Tech alumna means…

That no matter where you go, you have instant friends ready to be found. Every place I've worked, and every place I've lived, there are other Hokies and we always find each other. Fellow Baltimore Hokie Tim Fouts always jokes that if you want to meet other Hokies, wear your Hokie gear to the Home Depot and they'll introduce themselves to you. I don't know why we Hokies are like this, but that ingrained school pride and spirit is more unique than I think most Hokies realize.

My fondest memory from my time in the department is…

Running the Women in Computing Day for three years. It was very fun to bring middle school girls to campus from all of the surrounding counties and teach them about computer science. It was fulfilling to pull off such a large event, and some of my strongest remaining friendships from Virginia Tech are with other members of the AWC who also helped with it.

I was drawn to a career in academia because of its...

Interesting combination of responsibilities. Although I was first drawn to computer science by my love of programming, and also to academia due to my enjoyment of research, I also enjoy mentoring other people and teaching computer science. 

I've always been interested in the opportunity to make something new and devise a new approach to a problem, which at a high level is what you do in research. Even though I didn't become conscious of my love of teaching until toward the end of my Ph.D., I've been practicing those skills since I first became a camp counselor in middle school. Teaching became my career focus, with research a close second, which is why I chose to join academia at a liberal arts institution that supports both aspects of an academic career.

Advice I would give for women just getting started in the world of academia is to…

Find a peer mentor or colleague you can be honest to about how things are going. Some of the best advice I received as a graduate student, and again as an early career faculty member, came from other people who were at around the same stage of their careers. I was also able to give them advice on their own situations in return, building strong relationships of support. 

Although valuable mentors don't need to be women, having at least some women as mentors, who understand some of the experiences unique to being a woman in this field, can help you navigate difficult situations or find out about opportunities. As an undergraduate student I didn't understand the value of women colleagues as well as I do now. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, women's abilities and expertise will be as well-valued and respected as men's abilities and expertise in computer science. And then there won’t be a need to have these conversations anymore.