Scholarships help Informatics student build a powerful 1-2 punch

By Jim Davis Thursday, April 8, 2021

Sometimes one class or a single professor can alter the trajectory of an academic career. For Michelle Lee, the course was Informatics 200.

Lee entered the University of Washington in the 2016-17 school year, admitted as a freshman directly into the Foster School of Business. She mapped a plan to study marketing with a dance minor. In her sophomore year, Lee took a class that she heard was fun and interesting: INFO 200. It turned out to be far more than that.

In INFO 200, Lee worked on a group project to help food-allergy sufferers. In their research, the students found many people with food allergies underestimate the danger and often leave home without a life-saving EpiPen, which delivers a dose of epinephrine.

They developed an epinephrine injector phone case and accompanying phone app prototype to help allergy sufferers easily access and administer epinephrine.

“That really sparked something in me,” Lee said. “I enjoyed solving a problem by looking at user research, talking to stakeholders and understanding their needs, and really finding creative ways to fulfill that need.”

That one course in the Information School made Lee reconsider her pursuits at the UW. She wanted to continue working toward her business degree and keep her minor in dance; she had danced competitively from second grade through high school.

To add another degree would mean staying another year at the university along with added expenses. Fortunately, Lee received nearly $4,000 to help offset the costs through two scholarships, including one from the iSchool’s Susan Nelson Bockman Endowed Student Support Fund.

She’s also been working in the iSchool as the Career Services student assistant. Last summer, Lee helped the team create a diversity, equity and inclusion section for the Career Services section of the website as part of its Anti-Racism and Equity Action plan and to support students from marginalized or underrepresented communities.

Lee was dedicated, creative and brought a maturity to the project, said Caitlin Goldbaum, the iSchool’s assistant director for career services. Those pages have generated positive comments from students and recruiters, Golbaum said. Lee’s double major helped.

“She's really great at thinking about the visualization piece, which I think all of her marketing classes have helped with,” Goldbaum said. “She also has a deep understanding of what's happening in the tech industry and what are some of the things that our employers would be looking for when it comes to resources.”

“As a woman who will be entering the tech field, I want to be able to help younger women see that they too can enter into the space.”

What really cemented Lee’s decision — making her realize adding an iSchool degree was the right call — was a workplace experience in summer 2018 after taking INFO 200. She was an intern at Bellevue company SAP Concur, which makes travel- and expense-management software.

Lee was tasked with creating an internal portal to keep sales and marketing employees located globally and working in separate teams informed and aligned. She was given a great deal of independence on how to approach the project, but it was also ambiguous at first.

“Then I started thinking back to what I had learned in my INFO 200 course and started going through the design-thinking process,” she said.

She spoke with people who would use the digital tool, discovered their needs and created and shared drafts with employees. She made revisions based on user testing. By tapping into skills learned in an introductory class, she realized how useful an iSchool degree could be.

Lee is in her fifth and final year. She’s scheduled to graduate in June with a bachelor of arts in business administration (marketing) and a bachelor of science in Informatics.

She has been living at her family’s Eastside home while taking classes online. She knew the social aspect of college would take a back seat even without the COVID-19 pandemic. Many friends have already graduated.

After graduation, she will be using both degrees working as an associate product manager for Visa. Her dual degrees feel like completing a loop, Lee said. Through Informatics, she understands the creation of a product and then, through the business degree, how to market and sell it.

Lee recognizes she couldn't be in this position without mentors who helped her succeed. Forty percent of students in the Informatics program are women, and its collaborative culture prepares women to thrive in industries that have historically been dominated by men.

“I've always been really interested in technology but also intimidated and unsure if I could belong in that space,” Lee said. “I think it had a lot to do with seeing how tech has been a male-dominated field growing up.

“Now, as a woman who will be entering the tech field, I want to be able to help younger women see that they too can enter into the space.”

In her iSchool Capstone project, Lee is working with a team on an app to help people with limited proficiency in English accomplish daily tasks, such as reading bills or product labels for everyday essentials.

Lee’s parents and her team members’ parents are immigrants. Lee’s parents, who emigrated from Taiwan, now speak English fluently. Still, Lee praises the iSchool for democratizing technology.

“I love how (the iSchool) looks at technology through an ethics and inclusion lens,” Lee said. “It's so important to be consciously thinking about technology and how to remove bias.”