Student Spotlight: Semaa Amin
How Computer Science is helping one student turn multiple interests into a meaningful career
by Marcelle Santos
When Semaa Amin isn’t in class, she’s working to create a virtual reality lab. Or planning activities for students to support their mental health. Or recruiting female tech leaders to come to campus to talk about their careers.
“I’m the kind of person who feels bored when I don’t have something to do constantly. I’m just happy to be in this space where I have the support and the opportunity to get involved as much as I can on campus,” she says.
In her first year at Northeastern, she worked on an award-winning project (an immersive VR experience for physical rehabilitation), founded a networking group for female students beginning their tech careers, and signed on with the university to advocate for students as graduate Student Ambassador.
It’s clear that Semaa is exactly where she needs to be—but this wasn’t always the case.
A few years ago, she was headed toward a pharmacy career. She had studied biology for two years and gotten a job as a pharmacy assistant. Then she realized that, although she enjoyed biology, being a pharmacist was not for her.
“I knew deep down inside that it was not something I wanted to do. And also I felt like I got really attached emotionally with the pain that people were going through, and I was like, this is not a good place for me. I feel like every patient takes a toll on you at the end of the day. And so I realized that this was not something that would be healthy for me to continue for a lifetime.”
She switched majors, and, a year and a half later, she left the university with two degrees—one in Sustainable Energy Science and another in French Language and Literature.
She chose sustainable energy science because, around the same time she realized that being a pharmacist wasn’t going to make her happy, she discovered a passion for sustainability and renewable energy.
And the French degree? She had been accumulating credits in French without really thinking about it.
“You need 10 courses that have nothing related to your degree to expand your knowledge of what’s out there,” she explained. “So from those 10 courses, I was doing a lot of French courses just because of my interest in French when I started learning it in high school. I realized I had like a year and a half or two more years to finish my energy science degree, so my professor was like, ‘Hey, you have time, why don’t you just do another degree in the meantime?’ So I ended up doing them both.”
To complicate things, Semaa really enjoyed a mandatory computer science class she took right before graduating. “In that last semester, I realized how much I liked [computer science]. But I ignored it.”
She graduated, found work providing energy efficiency training to mental health organizations, and continued to ignore her interest in computing. Until, that is, a government skills training program for recent grads offered her the opportunity to study front-end web development for free.
She took the course, and despite how challenging it was, she enjoyed every minute of it. She then took more courses, while working full time, to earn a certificate in the end. She then pondered, “Great, I love programming, now what? I already have two undergraduate degrees. But at the same time, I really enjoyed this—and I might later regret not pursuing this further.”
A leap of confidence
She didn’t want to start again after just having started again. But then she remembered how, in a period of abnormal recession in Canada, she had been one of the lucky people who got a job right after graduating.
“I found a job as an energy efficiency coordinator for a mental health disabilities council. It was a very unique job, and I was able to get it because [in addition to a degree in Energy Science] I also had a background in biology and in healthcare. It intersected energy and health, that’s why I was able to work in that field.”
Realizing that her multiple interests weren’t an impediment to building a career, but a path to finding unique and meaningful work, Semaa began looking into studying Computer Science. The problem was that she didn’t want to do another undergraduate program, and she wasn’t sure that she would be able to do a Master’s without having majored in Computer Science as an undergrad.
That led her to Northeastern University and the Align Master’s program, which provides a direct pathway to a MS in computer science for students from all undergraduate backgrounds.
An interdisciplinary approach
As Semaa deepens her knowledge of computer systems and software development, she is weaving in her newfound skills with her experience working in healthcare, her background in science, and her interest in languages to offer a fresh perspective and to innovate.
For example, she created an online energy savings calculator to inspire small businesses and nonprofits to become more energy-efficient—something she wouldn’t have thought of if not for her unique background.
Last year, she contributed to a RISE award-winning project, Chrysalis, that intersects computer science and health. An immersive virtual reality experience for post-knee surgery patients, Chrysalis turns physical rehabilitation into less of a chore and more of an adventure.
Description of the Chrysalis VR experience; visuals from the built environment
A big part of Chrysalis’ appeal is that users get to choose a virtual location in which to exercise—and Semaa created a lakeside environment that makes doing straight leg raises not seem half as bad.
Semaa wants to build a career where she can continue exploring her multiple interests. With a degree in Computer Science, she can. “This journey,” she said recently, “of getting my MS in Computer Science, has been the most challenging, exhausting and yet exhilarating and rewarding experience I have encountered so far.”