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New Computer Science Graduate Finds Success Bit by Bit with True Grit, Talent
PhD Pursuit Is Next for Scholar Who Followed Nontraditional Course

Itzel Ramirez Tapia has been going through life at 100 miles an hour for as long as she can remember.

Itzel Ramirez Tapia holds her daughter, Samantha, then 2 years old, at a 2018 award ceremony for the All-Texas Academic Team, which is chosen annually by international honor society Phi Theta Kappa from the state’s top two-year college students.

As a mother, first-generation college student and underrepresented minority, she’s used to defying stereotypes as a computer science major.

“There’s this narrative that it’s impossible — that you have to be a genius to succeed in this field,” she said. “But it’s not just natural talent. It’s also about determination.”

The University of Texas at Dallas senior, who will graduate this month with a Bachelor of Science, has found success along the way through tenaciousness and resolve. While raising a young child and working multiple jobs, she earned a scholarship to pay for her studies, which led to intensive research projects and mentoring others.

And although she had multiple job offers, Ramirez Tapia has chosen to enter the PhD program at UT Dallas, supported by a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship.

But the journey hasn’t been easy or straightforward. As the oldest of four siblings, Ramirez Tapia had the responsibility of being a caregiver from an early age while her parents worked multiple jobs. She also served as a translator for her parents, which exposed her to issues that don’t concern most children.

“From reading mail and forms for them, I knew that we struggled to make rent and to put food on the table,” she said. “My parents sacrificed so much to give us what we had.”

“I was warned that it would be much more difficult. I had no coding background. But maybe it was a gut feeling. I took a leap of faith and discovered that I had so many misconceptions about how that would turn out.”

Itzel Ramirez Tapia, who will graduate this fall with a bachelor’s degree in computer science at UT Dallas

Her parents emphasized that education was a privilege not available to everyone. Ramirez Tapia qualified for her school district’s Gifted and Talented (GT) program from a young age and helped her younger sisters with their schoolwork.

“In the GT program, we would build simple machines and do logic puzzles — and I loved the puzzles. I’d ask for extra to take home,” she said. “I later realized they used the same logic at a basic level that I learned in automata theory at UT Dallas. But I was just doing it because I enjoyed it.”

By the time Ramirez Tapia graduated from high school, her role had changed — on top of looking after her sisters, she was working as well. Her first try at higher education was short-lived.

“I tried to take a full course load at community college while working three different jobs, and that was obviously ill-advised,” she said. “I dropped out and didn’t think about going back for years.”

Becoming a mother changed her perspective. At the time, she was barely making enough money to cover her own expenses.

“I was so fearful of my child going through the same things I went through,” she said. “Just after my daughter was born, I enrolled in community college, quit my job and worked 30 hours a week as a nanny while going to school at night.”

Initially, Ramirez Tapia was taking core classes on a path to an associate’s degree. But the thought of ample job opportunities and being able to provide for her family drew her to computer science.

“I was warned that it would be much more difficult. I had no coding background,” she said. “But maybe it was a gut feeling. I took a leap of faith and discovered that I had so many misconceptions about how that would turn out.”

Now confident she was going in the right direction, Ramirez Tapia began to chart a course from North Central Texas College (NCTC) to a four-year university. She did what she could to stand out — taking honors courses, volunteering and assuming leadership roles in student organizations. She praised her advisors at NCTC for believing in her and pushing her on.

“They supported me in finding scholarships, and I ended up applying for more than 500,” Ramirez Tapia said. “I treated that like its own class.”

A Supportive Home at UT Dallas

The Terry Foundation Scholarship Program at UT Dallas welcomed her, and the financial support enabled her to leave her job and focus on school after transferring to the University. Sheila Kelly, director of the Terry Scholars Program at UT Dallas, called Ramirez Tapia “a true advocate for women in STEM — especially Latinas.”

“She has continuously juggled three jobs: full-time student with an excellent GPA; mom and role model to her daughter, Samantha; and intern or researcher,” Kelly said. “UT Dallas is fortunate to have such a bright, determined and dedicated student who strives to make life easier for those coming behind her.”

While her first semester was a difficult transition, Ramirez Tapia reached a turning point in an Advanced Algorithm Design and Analysis class taught by associate professor of instruction in computer science Dr. Bhadrachalam Chitturi.

“The class really forced me to think outside the box while bringing together everything I’d learned to that point,” Ramirez Tapia said. “It gave me a blueprint for the kind of problem I later saw on the coding challenges required in job interviews.”

“She has continuously juggled three jobs: full-time student with an excellent GPA; mom and role model to her daughter, Samantha; and intern or researcher. UT Dallas is fortunate to have such a bright, determined and dedicated student who strives to make life easier for those coming behind her.”

Sheila Kelly, director of the Terry Scholars Program at UT Dallas

At UT Dallas — a campus known for its diversity — Ramirez Tapia connected with peers who were like her in one way or another: first-generation, a parent or ethnic minority.

“I was overwhelmed by the many opportunities to get involved in extracurriculars, in the community and with area businesses,” she said. “It also helped being able to reach out to other women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] via organizations like Women Mentoring Women in Engineering.”

At the Speed of Bright

UT Dallas has earned a reputation for incredibly bright students, innovative programs, renowned faculty, dedicated staff, engaged alumni and research that matters. Read stories about more of the University’s bright stars.

 

Ramirez Tapia’s concerns for the educational experience of others caught the attention of Dr. Stephanie G. Adams, dean of the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. Ramirez Tapia raised concerns about potential bias issues in several programs and processes in the Jonsson School.

“She expressed her concerns in a very scholarly manner and gave examples to substantiate her claims,” said Adams, holder of the Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair. “But even beyond that, I saw parallelism in the questions that Itzel asked and work being done by a leading computer scientist in the field.”

Ramirez Tapia created another special opportunity for herself as one of the rare computer science students chosen for a Green Fellowship, which is an intensive semester of research for select UT Dallas students under the direction of the graduate school faculty at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“I got to do research on a real, tangible problem that’s directly tied to patient care,” Ramirez Tapia said. “Oncologists use machine learning to determine treatment planning and ideal radiation dosages for patients’ individual cancers. I had to build a model that could predict patient outcomes for any tumor site.”

Changing Gears

Ramirez Tapia had four full-time job offers waiting for her upon graduation, but another offer soon arrived: admission to the computer science PhD program at UT Dallas, with a two-year fellowship from the National Science Foundation through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation program.

“I am extremely delighted that she chose to stay at UT Dallas, and I am even more delighted that she was accepted into our bridge-to-doctorate program. Her journey speaks volumes about her tenacity. Itzel is a tremendous role model for her family and other Jonsson School students.”

Dr. Stephanie G. Adams, dean of the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science

“After meeting with Itzel, I knew she had to go to graduate school,” Adams said. “I told her that she was talented enough to go to any number of schools and that I would help her go where she wanted.

“I am extremely delighted that she chose to stay at UT Dallas, and I am even more delighted that she was accepted into our bridge-to-doctorate program. Her journey speaks volumes about her tenacity. Itzel is a tremendous role model for her family and other Jonsson School students.”

Ramirez Tapia said the support she’s received from Adams and others in the Jonsson School made her decision easier.

“At the start of November, I was expecting to leave academia,” she said. “But I chose to pursue my PhD for several reasons. The primary one is that I genuinely enjoy conducting research. I knew that pursuing a PhD could happen someday, but the two-year grant accelerated my timeline.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].