I’m originally from Latvia; it’s where I grew up and did most of my schooling, but when I was 17 I moved over to the UK. Latvia is a very small country that doesn’t have a great education system or many good job prospects, so I decided to move to London with my mum to take my A-levels.
Even though I had been learning English for years, studying in the language was a totally different experience. Not only did I have to get to grips with the language, I also had to navigate an entirely different education system. In Latvia I had to study 19 subjects at a time, meaning I learned a lot of things, but not in much depth. So, it was tough in the beginning. In fact, when I first had my academic levels assessed; I passed maths but failed two of my other subjects. To catch up, I started going to school early every day to study and ended up having some of the best grades in the class.
I got an email from my school saying that there was a programme offering a free trip to the US and I thought, I want to go! It sounded super competitive, but I thought I’d apply and see how it went. At the time I didn’t realise that it was anything more than a week-long stay in the States, so when I found out that a huge part of the programme was helping you to apply to US universities, I was very excited. Ever since I was little I’d always wanted to study in the US, but my mum would always be like, “are you crazy?”.
My experience of the programme was really positive – the only stressful moment was taking the ACT exams, which were the worst. I was able to spend a week at Yale, staying there and visiting other schools in the area. The day we spent in New York was a highlight of the trip, as we went up the Empire State Building and then on to a reception at the Yale club, an alumni club in the city.
After the programme I did my undergraduate at Trinity College in Connecticut, which I chose as I decided that I wanted to study computer sciences and film studies at a campus university. I’m so grateful for having been at a liberal arts school – while I was passionate about film theory and really interested in computer science, I wasn’t 100% sure they were what I wanted to study. The liberal arts structure allowed me the freedom to explore other subjects and expand my knowledge in different areas.
In my second year at undergraduate I did Google’s Summer of Code, where Google pays for you to work on an open source project. You can work on a project anywhere in the world, so I chose to go home to Latvia and work with the Apache Software Foundation. It was on this project that I met my mentor, Chris Mattmann – he was running the project as the director of Apache Tika and guided me through the process.
After getting to know me on the project, he offered me an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California the next Summer. Thanks to Chris, I was able to work on a lot of data science projects at NASA, which were all very different and very cool. I’m hoping to intern there again this summer and it’s ideally where I’d like to work in the future.
I’ve now graduated from Trinity and recently started a PhD in computer science with a focus in machine learning at the George Washington University. At the moment I’m taking a lot of courses as well as teaching students and trying to do research, which is taking some getting used to as I usually focus on one thing at a time. I’m still deciding on what research path I want to pursue but I’m really enjoying studying the field in depth.
My advice is to not be afraid to go for it. I’ve been extremely fortunate to meet some incredible people along the way – they’ve helped and guided me, but none of those opportunities would have come along if I hadn’t taken risks. Always stay true to your values but remember that things don’t happen without effort.