Cornell University
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Lola Legrand, MPS '18

Lola Legrand (Info Sci '17, MPS ’18) is savoring her time as a graduate student and making the most of it. Her ambitious class schedule clocks in at 19 credit hours this semester, filled with courses that inform her big-three interests: technology, design and law.

Why such a heavy work load in her opening MPS semester?

“I didn’t know how to decide which courses I wanted to take, so I did all of them,” the New York City native said. “I love what I’m doing, so I don’t see it as too much work.”

From Rapid Prototyping to the Tech/Law Colloquium, diverse course offerings have allowed Lola room to explore her interests further, and she’s excelled. Her impressive in-class projects offer proof of an enterprising student and adept team-player with an eye for design and usability. Last spring, her team’s Fridge Friend system took home the Bank of America-Merrill Lynch Award at BOOM 2017, hosted by Cornell Computing and Information Science. This semester, she and her teammates designed and built a robotic drink-maker for Rapid Prototyping and redesigned the Cornell-based Network for Environment and Weather Applications (NEWA) website, which serves a large agricultural network around the U.S.

This fall – amid the projects, team meetings and, of course, classes – Lola landed a job: she signed an offer to join Deloitte Consulting post-graduation as a business technology analyst.

In our conversation, Lola discusses changing academic paths as a sophomore, notes that Info Sci is a home for multi-disciplinary students (not just coders and programmers) and how current MPS students proved vital as she was considering applying to the program. 

How did you arrive at Cornell Info Sci? I actually was doing cognitive science at another institution. My dad was in tech, and I wanted to do neuroscience because I was always interested in how the brain works. I then realized there’s something interesting in how we function and how technology functions. It creates this feedback loop: we make the technology advance, and the technology helps us advance. I was interested in this idea of designing technology and bridging the gap on what technology can do and how we can use it. The reason I came here was I was looking for a program that had more breadth, that incorporated all aspects of technology. The Info Sci program is good at incorporating everything you would traditionally think tech is, like programming, but there’s also design and ethical, legal and social aspects. How many majors are there where your core class are programming, design classes and law classes? That attracted me, all that breadth and opportunity to do hands-on projects. It’s getting your hands dirty by using all that theoretical knowledge to create something real and realizing how that all comes together.

What does design mean within the context of technology? It’s the translator between tech and people. You can have technology with great functionality, but if the design isn’t suited for the user, that technology won’t be used. Tech is great but if it’s not usable, it’s not going to have the impact that it could. That’s where design comes in, user-centric design that makes technology meaningful and impactful.

In what ways have you applied this thinking to your in-class work? The Fridge Friend project that we completed last year in our HCI course and that we presented at BOOM. It won the Bank of America-Merrill Lynch award. With the project, our team tackled the problem of food waste. To have the most impact, we focused on the consumer-side of food waste. Currently, there are apps to use, but apps can be static and require users to manually input in information. So we tried to incorporate physical components. We had the app and a sort of fridge wearable, a turning plate in your fridge that would use food-recognition software to create a meaningful, visual inventory of what’s in your fridge. We wanted to create a solution that fits into users’ lives seamlessly. That’s what I’m trying to do with design. We incentivized it by making it interactive and engaging for intended users. That’s where I see where tech and users are brought together with design. Design allows people to use sophisticated technology in a way that makes sense to them and that hopefully has larger impact on a relevant and urgent problem.

Lola Legrand and her Fridge Finder teammates during the Spring 2017 HCI poster session

This semester, for my MPS project, we’re developing and redesigning the website for NEWA [Network for Environment and Weather Applications], which is based out of Cornell. This website serves a large agricultural network and shares information on pest management. Our team has been interviewing farmers and growers to understand how they use this site, what they need from it, and what we can offer to facilitate those needs. We’ve iterated over multiple prototypes this past semester and gotten feedback from various prospective users in order produce a user-centric and effective final design proposal.

What skills do you bring to teams? I would say I have skills across the spectrum. I focus in research, but I also have experience in design and programming. It’s pretty common in this major to have students with different skillsets and varying levels of proficiency within those skills.

A common misconception about the MPS program is that it's designed for programmers and coders. Did that weigh into your thinking when applying to the program? I had some doubts that I would face some difficulties because I didn’t come into the program with a high level of programming proficiency.  Especially when you see a category of Info Systems classes, and they tend to be code-heavy. But a lot of students have this fear: “If I’m not a coder, do I belong in this program? Will people want me on their team?” There are coders in Info Sci, but designers and researchers too. Each student in the program gets exposure to a variety of skillsets, and gets the chance to further develop those skills how they want. However, ultimately, each student chooses which skills they focus on. I find that students, because we’re from different backgrounds – from different fields and interests– are very willing to help out and discuss things with you. If you reach out to someone, they will help you. As far as working within teams, I’ve talked to programmers who’ve said “I can code, but I don’t understand design, and I need help with it.” You’ll find people need your skills as much as you need somebody else’s.

How did you know you wanted to apply to the MPS program? I didn’t know until the middle of my senior year. I looked into it. I talked to a lot of friends who were in the MPS program and went to a peer advisor to discuss it with him. He had a lot of classes he suggested. If you’re interested in the MPS, I strongly recommend talking to a current MPS student or an alumni. That was really helpful.

What classes are you taking now? One of the reasons I wanted to do the MPS is because I get to do classes I didn’t get to do as an undergrad. As a graduate student, you get first pick. I’ve taken classes in the Johnson School of Business, like management consulting and project management. I’m also taking Rapid Prototyping and the Tech/Law Colloquium, which I really recommend. You get to sit in on a variety of presentations and to talk to people at the forefront of research in law and technology. It’s been a great experience to get a sense of the role of technology in society in practice, and the hurdles we face after a technology has been deployed. I also TA two courses (Teams and Tech, and Sustainable Development).

So, how many credit hours are you taking? 19 credits.

Whoa. How are you holding up? I didn’t know how to decide which courses I wanted to take, so I did all of them. As a grad student, I get to do what I want instead of doing what I have to do. I love what I’m doing, so I don’t see it as too much work. It’s been great. There are so many Info Sci courses I didn’t get a chance to do in my undergrad that I get to do now. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to do this program. It’s a great opportunity to explore your interests further and do hands-on classes.

Have you begun your job search? I’ve just signed my offer to join Deloitte Consulting as a Business Technology Analyst. I can say without a doubt that this program and this major played an integral role in preparing me with the skills I need to pursue a position I’m absolutely thrilled about.

Any advice on prospective students thinking about applying to the MPS program? Reach out to current students because we enjoy talking to prospective students. We're excited to talk about out experiences. Because we all have different interests, reach out to as many as you can. Find who you resonate with and talk with them. That’s what I did, and that’s why I enrolled. It was all practical information: What courses should I take? How doable is this program? What skills should I have? How do I get research? Which professors should I talk to? Current students are more than willing to talk about the MPS.