Falling in love with research

First in their family to graduate from elementary school, Ericka Corral’22 will soon begin Ph.D. studies in computer science. Their goal? Find solutions to real-world problems.

Ericka Corrall'22 hosting a radio show at WBCR, Beloit College's student run radio station, i... Ericka Corrall’22 hosting a radio show at WBCR, Beloit College's student run radio station, in 2019.“I’ve loved computer science since middle school,” says Ericka Corral’22. “I also love problem-solving. Beloit College allowed me to bring those two together by offering me multiple research experiences. I am excited to build on those at the University of Denver, where I’ll focus on artificial intelligence (AI). I’m looking forward to finding new ways to apply computer science.”

Ericka’s love of computer science might have made a research university the obvious choice for college. There, students focus almost exclusively on their majors. But Ericka’s wanted to take classes in more than one subject, including Japanese and music. They also wanted the flexibility to change their mind about computer science if that felt right.

Counselors in the IIT Global Leaders Program Corral attended as a high school junior and senior suggested Beloit. It not only met Ericka’s criteria but offered a bonus. The college’s proximity to her Chicago home allowed her family to visit.

An important question remained. Would Beloit feel welcoming?

A family visit to Beloit was reassuring.

“It was the first time my parents set foot on a college campus. All three of us were impressed by the college’s different buildings, beauty, and walkability, and my parents were fascinated by dorm life. The visit was magical. We left convinced I’d made the right choice.”

If Ericka’s success at Beloit seemed all but guaranteed, personal realities soon interfered. Having shouldered significant family responsibilities since childhood, including as translator at age 6, Ericka assumed they’d be a fully formed adult by the time they started college. That was not the case; Ericka still had growing to do. Imposter syndrome also set in, as is often true for the college-bound children of immigrants.

Beloit College graduate Ericka Corral'22. Beloit College graduate Ericka Corral’22.Did Ericka belong in college, and more specifically, at Beloit College?

Fortunately, Beloit has a strong student support system. Even before classes started, Ericka participated in programming offered by the Student Excellence and Leadership Program (SEL). One of Beloit’s TRIO programs, SEL supports students who, like Ericka, are underrepresented in higher education. SEL director Maria Scarpaci and assistant director Daryl Saladar make sure that SEL students feel welcome, safe, and able to succeed.

“Maria consistently made me feel smart and awesome,” Ericka says. “She always reminds SEL students that they belong in college. And Daryl was like a father figure to me. My dad did his best, but he knew neither the college experience nor Beloit. Daryl gave me academic and emotional support when I needed it, and helped me with practical problems.” For example, after a car crash, Daryl helped Ericka navigate insurance and other car-related problems.

Ericka was also encouraged by faculty.

Susan Furukawa, a faculty member in modern languages and literatures, taught Ericka’s first-year seminar and advised them until they declared a computer science major. The two would remain close throughout Ericka’s time at Beloit. Coincidentally, Susan leads Beloit’s Japanese program.

“I spent a lot of time in Susan’s office, talking not just about academics, but life. In turn, Susan sometimes talked about her own experiences. She also made sure I was applying what we’d learned in our first-year seminar. ‘Are you keeping yourself organized? Have you done X or Y yet?’ she’d ask.”

Ericka pursued the three interests that helped bring them to Beloit.

First, Japanese was going well. “Beloit’s much smaller classes accelerated my progress. Individual attention was just what I needed.” Japan’s prowess in AI had led Ericka to study Japanese in the first place; working for a Japanese company remains a dream.

Second, Ericka’s interest in computer science was bolstered by project-based learning.

“After my sophomore year, I spent the summer helping professor Eyad Haj Said develop an algorithm for detecting kidney disease. It was hard! Not only did I have to learn a lot of new concepts, but because of COVID, I had to do everything from home instead of on campus with Eyad.” Eyad knew how to motivate and support Ericka, however, and Ericka was becoming a more independent learner. The combination got Ericka through the project.

McNair 2022 graduates. From left: Ericka, Gisela, Desire, Caitlin, and Yolanda. McNair 2022 graduates. From left: Ericka, Gisela, Desire, Caitlin, and Yolanda.Participation in McNair Scholars, another of Beloit’s TRIO programs, gave Ericka a second crack at project-based learning. McNair Scholars prepares promising underrepresented undergraduates for graduate studies by offering them opportunities to do research at universities designated “R1” based on the strength of their research programs. McNair also provides opportunities for its scholars to explore graduate school options and guidance about applying.

“When I decided on McNair, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to graduate school; I had no idea what that involved. I also didn’t know what to think about doing research, as my experience with it was so limited.”

McNair staff members Caitlin Rosario Kelly and Kristin Frey were there to help and encouraged Ericka to apply to the SureStart x MIT FutureMakers Create-a-Thon summer program. Divided into teams to work on real-world problems of their choice, Ericka’s group worked on an app to detect facial paralysis.

“One of the team members had a family history of strokes, which is how we came up with the project. It was mind-blowing to realize we could be helpful to someone we knew by inventing a way to detect strokes more rapidly.” Although this had also been a virtual experience, Ericka realized they wanted research in their future. It didn’t hurt that their team won first place in the Create-a-Thon.

Two additional project-based learning experiences put Ericka further along a research path. Beloit mathematician Ben Stucky was the advisor for both.

Presenting research at the MKN McNair Heartland Conference. Presenting research at the MKN McNair Heartland Conference.“Ben mentioned in our discrete math class that he wanted to do research with students in the college’s summer science research program. I applied and spent four weeks on campus helping to find ways to improve the college’s introductory calculus course. The interchange among the research teams about the different STEM course improvements we were working on was great. It was also satisfying to be involved in research to benefit Beloit students.”

Finally, a senior capstone course taught by Ben drove home the importance of research.

“We divided into teams to use mathematical modeling to determine where best to deploy mobile clinics in Walworth County. Open Arms Free Clinic, the organization commissioning the research, facilitates access to health care. Our findings will help shape its work going forward.”

Ericka was the only computer science major on the team; the others all studied math. “It was heartening to see how my CS studies positioned me to contribute.”

Ericka Corral'22 attending Latinx Formal with friend Kathryn Linton, left. Ericka Corral’22 attending Latinx Formal with friend Kathryn Linton, left.And as for Ericka’s third interest, they were also able to pursue music, first by enrolling in Beloit’s Interarts Ensemble, which is offered as a course, and in their senior year, by taking voice lessons.

“My voice teacher was Jennifer Shanin. She’d been a backup vocalist for a Rolling Stones tour. How exciting is that?”

Ericka loves rock and mariachi. As an 8-year-old, they’d learned how to hit a note. Now, using breathing and other techniques, they learned from Jennifer how to feel a note. And as music students at Beloit not only take lessons but perform, Ericka sang publicly twice, singing Mexican songs each time to honor their heritage.

“I grew up going to Chicago restaurants with mariachi music. So I sang “La Llorona” and Carla Morrison’s ballad “Disfruto.” Students at Beloit are encouraged to help diversify the music on campus. I was happy to be a part of that, and to honor my parents in doing so.”

As they head off to Denver to begin graduate studies, Ericka is excited. The University of Denver feels right, just as Beloit had. 

At the Maker Lab with Jerry Phuc (left) and Kathryn Linton (center). At the Maker Lab with Jerry Phuc (left) and Kathryn Linton (center).Ericka advises Beloit students to balance living with academics. “You need to have fun along with being studious.”

Friends were incredibly important during Ericka’s time at Beloit, including other McNair scholars and Kathryn Linton. The two spent many hours in Beloit’s Maker Lab and were thrilled to be able to room together in their senior year. The pandemic had interrupted their plans to do so earlier.

Also, forget having everything figured out on day one. “College is where you learn who you are. Take advantage of your four years at Beloit to do that.”

By: Elizabeth Brewer
July 14, 2022

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