At the intersection of data and social change

“I talk with friends who are not Mount Holyoke students, and they have limited research experience. But here, I’ve done research with two advisors in two different departments.”

Grace Guan didn’t have much trouble finding a home away from home on campus. After spending her first year studying remotely in Shanghai because of COVID-19 restrictions, she seized a range of on-campus opportunities that combined her love of martial arts, dance, East Asian pop music and languages.

The Kachimushi Naginata club was “the first place that felt like home,” Guan said. It wasn’t just about the opportunity to practice Naginata, a traditional Japanese martial art. She also bonded with a group of “really kind friends” through the club, “which always felt like family.”

But that’s not the only way Guan has been on the move during the last three years. From K-pop to C-pop to J-pop — she dances to it all through three different clubs on campus. As part of Flow Motion (focused on Chinese pop), ODotteMita (ODM, focused on Japanese pop) and Rainbow Jelly (focused on K-pop) dance clubs, Guan has performed at campus events including China Night, which celebrates the Chinese New Year, and VariAsian, an annual showcase encompassing both traditional and modern Asian culture.

It’s been easy to connect with other international students from Asia, Guan said, thanks to the Chinese Cultural Association, the Asian American Students in Action and the Asian Empowerment Center, a meeting spot for students within the Asian diaspora. “You can connect with people not only from China but from across Asia, as well as other students really interested in Asian cultures,” she said.

Fluent in English and Mandarin, Guan’s multilingualism has influenced her academic journey at Mount Holyoke. At first blush, psychology and computer science may seem wholly disparate. But Guan sees an important cross-cutting theme. “My field of interest is basically around languages,” she said.

Inspired by 300-level psychology courses focused on the connection between speech, language and cognition, Guan conducted an independent study with a fellow student on pitch variation and voice qualities among Mandarin/English bilingual speakers. After her junior year, Guan received funding from Mount Holyoke’s Lynk program to support a summer research internship in Boston University Professor Charles Chang’s linguistics lab.

Guan’s wide-ranging curiosity led her to research projects in computer science as well. After enjoying a course during her junior year about natural language processing — a key capability of many machine learning and AI technologies — she is doing an independent study focused on automating language identification in audio files. “You say something, and the language model will detect which language it is,” Guan said. During her final semester on campus, she’s conducting a literature review on the subject while also building out a data model that supports language identification.

Such research opportunities, developed through close relationships with professors, have been a central part of Guan’s Mount Holyoke experience. “I talk with friends who are not Mount Holyoke students, and they have limited research experience. But here, I’ve done research with two advisors in two different departments,” she said. With co-authors in the psychology department, she has submitted a paper for presentation at a conference this summer.

Postgraduation, Guan is eyeing a few graduate programs that bridge computer science, data and cognitive science. She already has a few offers. Her ultimate goal? To work for a company at the intersection of “data and social change.”

But Guan’s final months on campus are by no means a Commencement waiting game. She wants to help other students find the same sense of home she found after arriving on campus.

“As a senior, my goal is to open up possibilities for my peers, fostering a sense of comfort at Mount Holyoke,” she said. One way she does that is through the dance clubs. New and younger students can sometimes find it challenging to explore their interests, Guan noted. “I offer encouragement and assistance to boost their confidence, enabling them to shine on stages and succeed in competitions.”

She does something similar through her work as a teaching assistant (TA) in the computer science department, where she helps younger students succeed. “It’s been a valuable way for me to build connections,” Guan said, noting the role affords her the opportunity to glean insights from students, fellow TAs and professors. “I really want everyone to have a chance to experience computer science, no matter what their majors are.”

After taking her first Mount Holyoke computer science remotely from Shanghai during her freshman year, Guan understood the value TAs can offer other students. “We can offer not only technical knowledge support but also emotional support,” she said. Some students need someone to talk to, as “they’re just stressed out and don’t know what to do. I want to be that person they can always go to.”

This commitment to helping other students successfully navigate their college experience stems from what Guan calls a “core value” of her time at Mount Holyoke: “a sense of belonging within our community.”

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