Emma McMillian was a sixth grader at Takoma Park Middle School when she realized she wanted to be a computer scientist.

The magnet school, located near Washington, D.C., required all students to take an introductory course in the topic. It captured Emma’s interest beyond more traditional subjects, such as English or biology. “I remember sitting there and learning how a computer works,” she says. “All the different things that happen in this small little box—I was like, wow, this is really powerful.”

With her mother’s encouragement, Emma continued to pursue her newfound passion via annual capstone projects at her middle and high school and computer science courses at a nearby university.

Emma McMillian, BS ’23 | Support WashU undergraduate students through Make Way: Our Student Initiative

When it was time to choose a college, Emma’s positive encounters with the Washington University admissions team and the offer of a full-tuition scholarship persuaded her to enroll, despite never having set foot in the Midwest.

Both of Emma’s parents are retired, so the Stefanie Hill and John Pickett Scholarship has been instrumental in offsetting the financial burden of student loans. And it has a less tangible but equally meaningful impact: an endorsement of Emma’s skills and abilities. “My scholarship gave me a lot of confidence to take my classes, to interact with other students, to interact with professors,” she says. “I’m like, I’m supposed to be here. I do belong here; I’m not just a number. I’m supposed to be doing this. I felt like the university was saying, ‘This one is ours. We’re going to do what we can to make sure this student succeeds.’”  

I’m supposed to be here. I do belong here; I’m not just a number. I’m supposed to be doing this. I felt like the university was saying, ‘This one is ours.

Emma McMillian

This vote of confidence has empowered Emma to seek out research and internship opportunities and initiate lasting connections with professors, alumni, and professionals in her field. Not long after her arrival, she sent emails to a group of faculty expressing her interest in research. The move landed her a job in the lab of Raymond E. Arvidson, who currently serves as the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Among other duties, Emma was able to create panoramic photos of Mars using NASA Mars Exploration Rover data and to learn from graduate students engaged in Mars mapping and pathfinding.

Emma went on to do research on algorithmic fairness in the WashU lab of Yevgeniy Vorobeychik, an associate professor of computer science and engineering. And she interned at NASA, spending 10 weeks harnessing the power of NASA supercomputers to develop data visualization software that illustrates how wind pressure affects paint on rockets. “I had dreamed of working at NASA since I was a little girl,” she says. “I was so proud to contribute to a project that will further space system development. Realizing this dream made me even more inspired to expand my knowledge at WashU the next year.” 

That she did, writing an abstract based on her NASA research that was published in the Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest and featured at Parents’ Week 2021 as one of the top viewed posters from the university’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Even with this life-changing opportunity at NASA, Emma says she is equally grateful for the exposure she has gained to perspectives and ideas outside the realm of engineering. Her anthropology classes, for example, have been some of her most memorable academic experiences.

“I’m really grateful for the ability to come to a school and be able to learn about other people’s majors, not just my own,” she says. “This is why education is so important to me. It’s about learning and growing as a person. I really want to make a difference in the world, and I need to meet new people and understand the world’s challenges to do that.”

You can help talented and curious students like Emma pursue their passions and discover new ideas with a gift of any amount in support of WashU undergraduate scholarships.