CS senior empowers women through tech

Miti Joshi admits that before she stepped foot on Vanderbilt’s campus, she was very wary of what would later become one of her greatest passions.

“I’m moving across the world alone, and I need to take a leap of faith here,” said Joshi, an international student from Mumbai, India. “Let me try the craziest thing and declare a computer science major.”

Joshi, who had never coded before, nor met a female computer programmer, second-guessed her decision immediately.

“Engineering, yes. Computer science? Not in my wildest dreams,” said Joshi, a Chancellor’s Scholarship recipient. “I hate to say it now, but back then I honestly just thought it was something that only really smart boys did.”

One of her first professors at the School of Engineering altered her mindset completely.

Julie Johnson, associate professor of the practice of computer science (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt)

“Professor Julie Johnson helped me fall in love with the subject. I was so inspired by this accomplished, confident woman,” said Joshi, who spent many hours in Johnson’s office discussing the role of women in computer science. “She helped me to realize that I was not an imposter and that I absolutely belonged in CS.”

“Miti’s insights and technical abilities, coupled with her non-stop energy, bring her ideas to life,” Johnson said. “It’s contagious! When Miti has an idea, you can’t help but want to get on board.”

With her newfound confidence, Joshi and a group of freshmen competed in VandyHacks, a 36-hour invention marathon held at the Wond’ry in 2016. Hundreds of students from as far away as California packed the innovation and entrepreneurship center, as well as nearby halls and classrooms, with the goal of producing the next great tech invention.

“We did a virtual reality project and it was really difficult. Everything kept breaking, and we didn’t know what was happening because it was our first coding project,” Joshi remembered.

In the end, the app was successful, and the group won an award for their ambition and drive. That’s when Joshi knew she was on the right path.

“There’s a certain pure bliss that you feel when you get something right, and CS gives me that,” she said.

Miti Joshi (center) and her team created a virtual reality app at her first VandyHacks hack-a-thon

Joshi wanted to encourage that feeling of confidence among female engineering students and create a space where young women could ask questions, help one another and network. With the guidance of graduate student Hayley Adams and Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Computer Engineering Maithilee Kunda, Joshi launched Vanderbilt Women in Computing. 

Seeing other women in computer science has been a source of empowerment for members of the organization. “I feel like people started becoming more comfortable in their own skin in classrooms, and more confident,” Joshi said. “You don’t have to wear a hoodie and code all day to be a great programmer. We wanted to create a space for women to be their authentic selves.”

The group has created learning and networking events to connect Vanderbilt and the greater Nashville tech community through Emerge conferences. The first two focused on virtual reality and virtual intelligence.

“People want to learn about new technologies, not just about how to code the new tech,” Joshi said. “They want to discuss how virtual reality or artificial intelligence is going to impact all of our futures.”

Joshi’s work with Vanderbilt Women in Computing also opened conversations about mental wellness within the larger tech and engineering spaces.

Joshi used this photo to announce the creation of Vanderbilt Women in Computing.

“There is the general notion that I am ‘weak’ if I’m facing mental health issues or am overwhelmed by all of the tight deadlines associated with engineering-related projects,” she said. “But if I need to seek mental health resources, I’m not a wimp and I’m not backing out from actually doing the hard work.”

Joshi said she finds it serendipitous that Vanderbilt’s Center for Student Wellbeing is in close proximity to Featheringill Hall. “It’s a physical reminder to people who are struggling that Vanderbilt has great resources for us.”

Throughout her time at Vanderbilt, Joshi has let off steam by participating in many of the international dance showcases on campus, including Diwali, Harambee and Café Con Leche.

“I think that’s the coolest thing I’ve done, and I’ve met incredible friends through dance,” she said.

Joshi wants to connect her passions for people and computer science following graduation.

“I think the thing that I love the most about tech is its ability to touch people in really profound and meaningful ways,” she said. “I want to stay in CS, and I want to help make beautiful tech that helps impact people.”

Joshi in the Diwali Showcase, 2018.