Finding Her Course

February 17, 2017 — Before she came to Grinnell College, Toby Baratta ’17 was an online gamer, but that passion came to an end when she was harassed by male gamers for being a queer woman. As a result, when she arrived on campus, Toby wanted nothing to do with the computer science community.

It was thanks to her first-year adviser and tutorial instructor, physics professor Sujeev Wickramasekara, that Toby took a chance and enrolled in Grinnell’s introductory computer science course, Functional Problem Solving. After that course she was still skeptical, but not too skeptical to try an internship with David Leppik ’94 during spring break of her first year. That was the experience that cemented computer science as the academic focus of Toby’s remaining three years at Grinnell.

Toby pursued her first of two Mentored Independent Projects (which she followed with four Mentored Advanced Projects) the summer after her first year with Associate Professor of computer science Jerod Weinman. “It was my first exposure to research, and his interests — computer vision and artificial intelligence — aligned directly with mine,” she says.

The following summer, Toby was offered an internship with Google. “When I saw the email, at first I thought it was a joke,” she says. Once she realized it really was Google contacting her, she wrote a scathing response criticizing the technology industry’s diversity policies, which Toby thought didn’t go far enough. She didn’t expect to receive a response, let alone the internship, but before she knew it, she was in Silicon Valley finding out how to make real change in the tech industry.

The summer after her third year, Toby had an offer to return to Google but wanted to explore her options, so she accepted a product management internship at Microsoft. There she was able to focus on access to developer tools such as Microsoft’s Graph Explorer and adding a new Excel Conditional Formatting API. Her work with Graph Explorer is already being used by developers.

On campus, Toby has worked as a technical consultant with the College’s Information Technology Services, managed the Stonewall Resource Center, mentored computer science students, and currently serves as the diversity and outreach coordinator for the Student Government Association. In these positions, she has combined her experience with computer science and her drive to improve life on campus especially for students with identities that have been historically marginalized.

Were it not for her externship, it’s unclear that Toby would be where she is today and it’s doubtful she would have a job at Microsoft waiting for her after she graduates. Through donor support, students like Toby have the opportunity to explore their interests and prepare for life after Grinnell.

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