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UT Regents’ Award winner uses computer science to blaze trails for students

By Jennifer L. Berghom

EDINBURG, TEXAS – SEPT. 8, 2015 – Dr. Christine Reilly never really intended to pursue a career in computer science.  When she was an undergrad, computer science was considered a “boy major.” But as part of her undergraduate studies in environmental engineering, she had to take a computer programming class.

And that is when she fell in love.

Reilly, an assistant professor of computer science at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and previously an assistant professor of computer science at The University of Texas – Pan American, for five years has shared her love of computer science with her students and served as a mentor to female students who want to pursue careers in that field.

“I loved seeing how we could use computer programs to solve problems, do computations so fast,” she said. “It was just amazing to me and programming was something that I found I was good at and I enjoyed.”

That passion for helping students garnered her The University of Texas System Board of Regents' 2015 Outstanding Teaching Award. Reilly was one of seven UTPA and UTB/TSC faculty to receive the award, considered among the highest and most prestigious in the nation to recognize teaching excellence. All seven now continue teaching at UTRGV.

The award, initiated by the Regents in 2008, recognizes tenured, tenure-track and contingent faculty (including lecturers, adjuncts and instructional assistants) for outstanding teaching, mentoring and personal commitment to students and the learning process, as well as for motivating students in the classroom.

Reilly earned her master's degree and Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005 and 2010, respectively, a master's degree in environmental and forest engineering from the State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2002, and a bachelor's degree in environmental engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999.

Reilly,  who had been teaching at UTPA since 2010, said she decided to enter academia because she likes having the freedom of working at a university and the opportunity to share her knowledge with others.

“I enjoy seeing sort of the spark in the student’s eye when they’ve worked really, really hard to try to understand a concept, and all of a sudden they get it,” she said.

“And I really love when I have the opportunity to work one-on-one with the students … to present something one way and they don’t quite understand it, and it’s like, OK, what if we look at it from this way or look at a different example. And then, all of a sudden, the student understands! To see that student continue on do well – in that class and in other classes -- is really rewarding.

In addition to teaching, Reilly also helped establish a student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery for Women at UTPA, to guide students who are pursuing computer science-related careers and inspire younger students to consider working in the science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) fields.

“We had women in computer science groups when I was in grad school,” Reilly said, “and having that support network is really important when you’re the only woman in the class. Sometimes, as the professor, I’m the only woman in the class. So it’s nice to have someplace to go where you can talk with other women who have similar interests and experiences ... having that community is really important.”

In letters of support, faculty and former students praised Reilly for her commitment.

One of her former students, Ariana Gutierrez, said Reilly created a classroom environment that was non-intimidating and made an effort to know all of her students. She also encouraged them to seek internships and research positions so they could get the most out of their education.

“It was the one reason I continued in this field of study, because she made it seem like anyone was capable of mastering this subject,” Gutierrez wrote.


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