By Tracy Miller Geary
Joan Coyne (Align MS CS ’20) searched for a rigorous yet welcoming Master’s in Computer Science program for many years before discovering the Align program at Khoury College. Although she started a MS program in Aeronautics and Astronautics upon graduating from MIT in 1987, she realized early on that employment opportunities in that field were dwindling. She left the program and worked in her first career as an engineer, testing flight control systems and guidance software on flight hardware for Titan launch vehicles at Martin Marietta, and developing simulations for several missile configurations for Raytheon.
“It was a very male-dominated field,” she says of the work environment, “and not very family friendly at the time.”
Looking for more flexibility in her career, Coyne took an online certificate program in web development at Northeastern and taught herself Perl. Since she had already been coding in FORTRAN at Martin Marietta and Raytheon, she realized that “Once you know one language, you can just pick up the others.”
Well-prepared for her second career, she worked first as a web designer and developer and also as an application developer. In 2004 she started her own company, Dorado Web Development.
She never lost her desire to pursue her Master’s. The idea was “put on hold” as she raised her children, hoping to go back to school after they finished high school. While at a freshman orientation in January 2017 at Northeastern with her son, Nicholas Kaffine, an incoming business major, Coyne learned that Northeastern offers tuition discounts for parents.
“I had heard of the Align program in Seattle but did a little research and found it here in Massachusetts,” she says. The program was “a perfect fit,” she adds, noting it did not require the GRE or prerequisite classes.
At the time, Coyne was working at MIT Lincoln Lab, which she had joined as a software engineer. She originally planned to continue working part-time while obtaining her Master’s but then realized “I wanted to devote myself fully to the Align program” so she became a full-time student. She appreciates the online class option once you have finished your bridge classes, but prefers to be in class. “There’s a different dynamic being in a classroom,” she says.
She considers Computer/Human Interaction her most motivating class so far. “The team I was on created an app for parents and caregivers of Type 1 Diabetes to help document and share a child’s blood diet and blood sugar data across devices,” she explains. “What I found inspiring was how much of a difference the app could make for the users we were working with, even though the app itself wasn’t complicated. I also really enjoyed the process of user-testing, working with the users to make the app simpler for people to use.”
Besides serving as a mentor in the Align mentor program, Coyne has been a co-op student since June working as a software engineer at Pison, a tech startup that develops wearable technology. Her background, based on IMU (inertial measurement unit) that measures and reports on a body’s specific force, makes working in human-computer interaction a great fit.
Her advisor, Ethan Selinger, describes how Coyne’s “wealth of knowledge and experience from previous roles in software engineering, along with her desire to gain experience in a new field,” led to her position as an app developer at Pison.
Her current project, designed originally for ALS patients, reads signals from muscles. “For example, if I move a finger up,” she explains, “a computer mouse then moves through the keyboard on the screen.”
Her son has since switched from business to computer science. Since he joined the program in the summer of 2017, they have taken one course together, Foundations of AI.
As Coyne jokes, “I told him, ‘I did it first!’”