Khoury senior helps new students find their place in computer science

November 20, 2019

By Erica Yee

As she prepares to graduate this fall, you can often find Marley Arborico mentoring freshmen.

Arborico (BS, Combined Computer Science and Biology, ‘19) became a Khoury Fellow — a mentor for first-year students — because of her past experience as a resident assistant in student housing. She has always loved answering questions and helping people answer their own questions, whether about studies or what to do with their free time. As a Khoury Fellow, she most enjoys holding open-ended one-on-ones with younger students. She asks them questions like these: What is challenging to you right now? What are you excited about in the future?

“I like helping in any way I can — often not me answering their questions directly, but through me being around the block enough that I know who has the answers or what experiences could help them,” says Arborico. That experience could be trying out a certain class or contributing to a public art mosaic on campus.

A major theme throughout all these interactions with Khoury College students is helping them understand the idea of computer science as a powerful, broadly applicable tool. Arborico hears a lot of worries from students who question how they fit within the community because they may not see themselves in the traditional image of a computer science student. Her advice for those groups of people is that there are always going to be others who “eat, sleep, and breathe computer science — for whom computer science is an end rather than a means,” as she puts it.

“It’s important to have those people in our lives. They help us learn and get jazzed about computer science. But there are also a thousand and one other roles in which computer science is a tool that can be applied in sociology, drug discovery, or even municipal problems in city government,” continues Arborico.

She advises students to look at what specific problems they want to solve and then figure out how computer science can be applied to those problems. Her own areas of study, computer science and biology, sound like they are distinct, “but there’s actually very interesting niche areas where those two things can overlap,” says Arborico. “I think of computer science as being this interesting tool with which I can solve meaningful problems, and those problems I’m interested in are in the realm of biology.”

For example, at her first co-op helping manufacture rare disease treatments, Arborico used Excel for data validation, manipulation and visualization. She noticed the scientists around her spending their time reviewing spreadsheets, only to find mistakes in the process and need to restart. Though she was not yet a computer science student, she had taken the introductory class “Fundamentals of Computer Science 1” and decided to teach herself the VBA programming language to optimize her team’s workflow. “Coming out of that co-op, I knew I wanted to learn tools I could use to allow myself and my team to spend our time and energy on the creative, creational parts of our jobs,” she says of this journey that led her to the combined major.

The capacity for self-directed and self-empowered learning is Arborico’s biggest takeaway from Khoury College’s curriculum. She feels like she can immediately apply what she’s learning. By not starting with all the pieces of puzzle — only specific ways of thinking and some tools — the process of working through computer science problems has taught her to be creative and resourceful. “It instills this feeling in me that if I’m given overwhelming or nebulous tasks, I will be able to break it down and find resources to teach myself,” she continues. “My academics have really helped me lean into that.”

Arborico says these kinds of synergies are increasingly reflected in the combined majors offered in Khoury. Her own combined studies led her to three very different co-ops — a biopharmaceutical company, a strategy consulting firm, and an educational technology company. This broad exposure to different domains informed her desire to help create systems in society that elevate the situations of groups of people, no matter what industry she ends up in.

“You don’t need to look like a traditional coder,” says Arborico as she reflects on her own diverse undergraduate experience. “You can still be a ‘true’ computer science student — a ‘true’ part of the computer science community — without those traditional associations.”