Aug 20, 2019 | Atlanta, GA
Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) student Stella Biderman has always used computer science to foster community.
As an avid theory researcher both personally and professionally, she loves exchanging ideas and making room for different ones. It’s also something she does as an advocate for transgender and other LGBTQ+ people in tech. Biderman has found a home for all of it since she joined OMSCS in 2017.
Discovering Computer Science
Biderman has always loved theoretical computer science problems she can fit in her head.
“I don’t like not thinking,” she said. “I much prefer figuring out how to build the model more than actually building it.”
She discovered her love for research in fifth grade when her school in Fairfax, Virginia, joined the FIRST Robotics Competition, a national science competition for students from elementary to high school. After that experience, Biderman wanted to be a roboticist. A few years later, though, she became passionate about math when she attended a math summer camp at Boston University that taught everything from elementary number theory to how to use computers for mathematical experiments.
When she went to college at the University of Chicago, she realized computer science would let her do both. She double majored in mathematics and philosophy but wanted more of a challenge and found herself in a graduate-level algorithms course as a sophomore.
“It combined all of the coolest part of theoretical math with applications to CS, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI),” she said. “It felt like my whole life was coming together.”
College was also the time she started to explore her gender identity. Ever the researcher, Biderman took a very scientific approach.
“I asked my friend, ‘Can you call me Stella and refer to me with she pronouns?’” she said. “I wanted to experiment with how I dressed and presented myself. Gender is a complicated and messy thing, and I wanted to see what felt best.”
Researching in the Real World
Although she loved the research in college, she was looking for a job that could combine her interests in a real-world environment and let her bring her full identity to work. She found it at Booz Allen Hamilton, where government agencies come when they want to add data science and analytics to their work. Currently her team uses reinforcement learning, a machine learning technique, to predict how foreign powers might act in conflict.
“Using game theory to describe how countries negotiate has always been popular in international relations,” Biderman said. “My work asks what if we applied some heavy-duty computer science techniques to this in a different way.”
Booz Allen Hamilton is also an inclusive workplace where Biderman regularly participates in mixers for LGBTQ+ employees in the company and helps with resume review workshops for queer college students.
Building Knowledge with OMSCS
Yet, as Biderman got deeper into her research, the job became less about theoretical CS and more applied AI. Biderman thought OMSCS could help her fill the knowledge gap on areas like databases and operating systems while still working at the job she loved.
“A lot of things in CS don’t have to do with algorithms, and I didn’t really know anything,” she said. “I wanted to get a deeper knowledge of AI, too.”
OMSCS has also given her the opportunity to pursue research outside of work. In April, she released a paper on the computational complexity of the game Magic: The Gathering. Magic: The Gathering is Turing Complete, co-written with Alex Churchill and Austin Herrick, determined that Magic was ultimately unsolvable by an algorithm. The result generated a lot of buzz in the gaming and theory communities, becoming Arxiv’s most tweeted paper in April and receiving press.
Biderman is a passionate researcher, but she also appreciates the collaboration. She is a member of Lucy Labs, an OMSCS digital lab for online education research.
“Participating in online forums where people teach, learn, and present research has always been important to me, and something I value about OMSCS is there is a community of people talking about stuff I love,” she said.
It’s also important for Biderman to give back. She has been a teaching assistant for the AI Robotics course for this reason, and she is also a transgender rights advocate. Last December, Biderman gave a speech on transgender rights before the general assembly of the Organization of American States to illuminate the transgender experience.
“My name is Stella Rose Biderman,” she began her speech. “I'm a mathematician, a computer scientist, and a philosopher. I am a researcher who works here in D.C. to create new forms of AI and technologies that will improve the world in the future...In many ways I'm not like my colleagues, when I take the metro to the office I am regularly vigilant to people who might harm or attack me.”
Biderman works to bring visibility to transgender people in tech. In fact, she successfully pushed for Booz Allen Hamilton to sign the Transgender Business Statement for Equality and has been working with company leadership to create opportunities for other transgender employees. She was recently recognized for her work at the DC FemTech Awards, which honor women and non-binary people in DC tech organizations.
For students like Biderman, community is not just something to join, but to build and shape for the better.