Meet Sweta Karlekar, a computer science major graduating in May. As an undergraduate, she chose to get involved with research within the department. Reflecting on her experience in undergraduate research, we discussed its impact on her time at Carolina, as well as her future career goals.
When did you decide you wanted to study computer science?
All my life I really wanted to be a doctor, because I knew the impact this role has on people’s lives. Junior year of high school, I took my first AI class and it was fascinating. We learned about self-driving cars and the ethics of AI; from that point on, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Through continued exposure to computer science, I realized that as a tool, computer science is morally neutral. Just as a doctor helps people, I could use what I’ve learned in computer science to help improve lives and make an impact on society.
Did you know you wanted to get involved with undergraduate research? How did you start?
I knew that I wanted to try to get involved with research prior to starting at Carolina. The summer before my first semester, I signed up for email listservs that sent information about open research positions across the University. There was an open position for a web developer within the School of Education, focused on creating science visualizations for children. This project aligned with my interests and involvements in high school, I was excited about the possibilities. I applied for the position and was accepted! I enjoyed the impact I was making and appreciated seeing how the collected data proved this research was really helping children, but I wanted to be challenged in different ways. That summer after my first year, I decided to reach out to Prof. Mohit Bansal at UNC CS, he was doing research in NLP, ML, and AI — the research areas I wanted to explore. I had a Skype interview and began work the following fall. Looking back, if I hadn’t taken that job my life would look so much different right now!
What advice would you have for your fellow CS students hoping to get involved in research?
When I first started at Carolina, I didn’t know that as an undergrad I would have the opportunity to plan, conduct, and carry through my own research projects and present at multiple top-ranking international conferences. Starting out, I found that I was met with imposter syndrome, lacking confidence in my knowledge of my chosen field of research and unsure of how I’d make my way in academia. However, research has given me the chance to prove myself in ways I never would have imagined; it allowed for freedom, creativity, and mobility. Through the opportunities granted to me by doing research, I met people that helped me build connections for job and internship opportunities, and ultimately have led me to a career I’m excited to begin after graduation. Looking back, research was the foundation I needed to make my next steps.
Research is an amazing opportunity to tell other people your idea, communicate, work in teams, and develop something that is truly yours. When working in industry, the code you write doesn’t belong to you and it is likely to eventually be rewritten. When conducting research, your paper is yours and it’s always going to be there. My papers are my creation—and it’ll be part of my legacy.