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Grad to Watch: Leila Chan Currie is software star

Photo of: Leila Chan Currie

Leila Chan Currie. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

If you Google the name Leila Chan Currie, don’t be surprised if the term “future employee” pops up.

Chan Currie, 21, is a graduating computer science and statistics major who is living every computer geek’s dream: beginning this summer, she will be working as a software engineer for the search engine giant at its Mountain View, California headquarters.

“If you told me four years ago that I would be working for Google, I would have looked at you funny,” Chan Currie said.

“I took a computer science class in high school and didn’t like it, so I was ambivalent about taking it here. I had some great professors and great courses, and my opinion changed. It has been a great door for me; I’m lucky I found it.”

It is a door that has opened onto a number of interesting opportunities for Chan Currie. She spent two summers working as an intern for Google and another summer working at Facebook headquarters, as well as serving as a teaching assistant and a research assistant at the University of Toronto.

Chan Currie has also competed successfully in a number of hackathons, including two selective competitions: the Al Jazeera Media Context Hackathon in Doha, Qatar, where her team’s project was named most innovative and won the people’s choice award; and a hackathon at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. She has also participated in two hackathons at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“At a hackathon, you start a new project entirely from scratch and work 24 to 48 hours non-stop to complete it,” Chan Currie said.

In Qatar, she and her team developed a computer application that would allow readers to easily find and compare a number of stories with vastly different viewpoints about one topic. They plan to release it free of charge through the Google Chrome app store.

“The more viewpoints you’re exposed to, the less bias you have,” Chan Currie said.

Before computer science pursuits began to absorb most of her free time, Chan Currie poured her extracurricular energies into Varsity Blues ice hockey, a sport she played growing up. She loved it, but found that she couldn’t devote the necessary amount of time to a varsity sport as her other commitments grew.

“I did an internship during my first summer and it was tough, because a lot of my teammates spent the summer training,” she said. “I worked out, but it is hard to keep up, and you can’t be entirely invested.”

Instead, Chan Currie has played tri-campus soccer for the past two years and blended her interests in sport and computer science to create, in conjunction with a former hockey teammate, a web application to track training progress.

“That’s what I love about computer science,” she said. “You can apply it to pretty much any field you want. Everything can be digitized or made more efficient, so you can apply your skills to something you really like.”

What Chan Currie really likes is natural language processing – anything that involves how a computer understands language or what computers can learn about what people write or say and machine learning the algorithms that can be used to teach machines to recognize patterns and predict things from past patterns. Both areas also draw heavily on statistical theory, and Chan Currie said her statistics major was “very complementary to computer science” and has given her a strong foundation for her dream jobs.

“Natural language processing is a wide-open field, and Google and Microsoft have really cool machine learning divisions,” Chan Currie said.

Google Leila Chan Currie’s name in a few more years and, no matter which path she chooses, the entry will undoubtedly include the word, success.