By Keely Savoie
Mina Khan ’15 remembers the time she spent working in Associate Professor of Physics Kathy Aidala’s lab at Mount Holyoke College as pivotal in her academic career.
Mentor and student were working on making denser, more stable material for magnetic memory storage when Khan had an epiphany about the connections between physics and computer science.
“We were working on ferromagnetic nanostructures,” she said. “It was physics research, but I realized that physics, math, computer science are all problem solving. It’s just a different kind of problem.”
Problem-solving is exactly what Khan does best—and it’s even better when she can do it across disciplines, drawing on her unquenchable curiosity and formidable intelligence for a fresh approach. No wonder, then, that as she completes her Mount Holyoke degree at MIT, she has a job at software giant Google waiting for her.
“It’s quite exciting,” said Khan, who is looking forward to the work itself and the company culture. “I like how Google is dealing with technology. They are combining academic research with industry, and taking things further than anyone would have imagined. They think about the future now.”
From the moment she arrived on Mount Holyoke’s campus, Khan’s intellect and inquisitiveness have driven her to learn more, to aspire higher. She soon connected with mentors who not only recognized her potential, but also set about helping her hone it.
“College is an opportunity to explore,” said Aidala, who chairs the physics department. “Mina had so many interests and so many things she wanted to learn it was a really just a matter of prioritizing.”
Explore she did, starting in economics and math, working her way through physics, ultimately finding herself working with Associate Professor of Computer Science Audrey St. John on data manipulation. St. John became another mentor to Khan, helping her navigate her way into research opportunities and internships that would not only expose her to new ideas and knowledge, but also position her for a career after graduation.
“Mina’s path and exposure to different areas and projects highlight the blurry lines between disciplines,” said St. John. “That’s the kind of thing that Mount Holyoke encourages—to experiment and take classes that you are interested in, because you’ll find out they connect in surprising ways.”
Ultimately, those connections make for a stronger foundation in the underlying concepts across disciplines—and allow for developing deeper connections within the field that can have transformative effects, not only on the student, but also the field itself.
“Especially in a field like computer science where there are so few women, [mentoring students] is an opportunity to broaden diversity,” said St. John. “These students are going into industry and graduate careers where women are not currently well represented. That can really transform the way our society progresses.”
While the details of Khan’s Google job remain unclear—she will only find out what she has been assigned to when she gets there—she fully expects to be working on technology with the potential to make positive changes in the world.
“I came into technology because I want to use it for good purposes, but I don’t know what form that will take,” she said. “Whatever it is, I am sure it will be wonderful.”
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