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Issue 13 MSc Presenting Alumni

Iwona Kotlarska: “Things that are fun are usually also the things that are good in life”

🕒 11 min

It is time to talk to another immensely interesting alumna of ours – this time, Iwona Kotlarska. Iwona participated at S3++ in 2017 and is currently studying towards a master’s degree in computer science, as well as a bachelor’s in mathematics. So, Iwona, why don’t you give us a short introduction for a start?

Iwona Kotlarska
MSc in Computer Science
University of Warsaw, Poland

S3++ 2017 participant

It’s always hard to come up with a quick introduction for yourself on the spot like this, but I guess it’s easiest to cover the basics: I’m Iwona, I live in Warsaw, Poland and I am a computer science and mathematics student, as well as a former S3++ participant. If I had to mention something a bit more fun, my love for the outdoors comes to mind first. I adore hiking and cycling, which Warsaw is surprisingly good for because it’s very foresty. I was also very into indoor climbing back when gyms were still open. I would like to try outdoor climbing someday as well, but I got into it kind of late. Finally, I like reading and music, and also playing games with friends, a bit of everything.

Education

Something that’s always interesting to ask when talking to a young scientist is, well, when did this journey start for you? Were you always interested in STEM?

Math has always been an interest of mine, ever since I can remember, even though I obviously didn’t always know how to express my thoughts precisely. I actually went into secondary school liking chemistry the most, though. My school offered a lot of extracurriculars, including various after-school classes in STEM subjects. There, enthusiastic teachers would explain in-depth topics beyond the standard curriculum to equally enthusiastic students, often with the goal of preparing them for an olympiad in that respective subject. Eventually, a friend pretty much dragged me to an extracurricular programming class at our school. I enjoyed that class so much that I quickly fell completely in love with it.

  • High school: 2014 – 2017, Stanisław Staszic XIV High School, Warsaw
  • BSc in Computer Science and Mathematics: 2017 – 2021, University of Warsaw
  • MSc in Computer Science: 2020 – now, University of Warsaw
  • Internship: 2018, Google, Dublin
  • Internship: 2019, Microsoft, Redmond, WA, USA
  • Internship: 2020, Jane Street, remote

Can you tell us a bit more about those olympiads? Would you say they shaped your high school years?

Poland has these national olympiads for different grades and subjects which you can compete in during primary and secondary school. Doing well can earn you entry into a better high school or university program, which is why a lot of people do them. I’d also say they were a big part of my high school experience, yes. I think competing might even be the main thing I was doing with my life at the time. And, like I mentioned, a lot of the extracurriculars offered to us were focused on getting us ready for those olympiads, so they came naturally to anyone who simply wanted to learn more.

You mentioned you had a knack for chemistry as well. And were you always interested in computer science? How did that interest prevail?

Oh, I remember I initially hated CS! When someone tried to show me it in primary school, I didn’t like it at all, it felt stupid. But that was because they didn’t show us the interesting parts of computer science – we didn’t make our own programs, they just taught us how to click around in Word or Excel. The peak of creativity was drawing with Turtle, which was better but still not nearly good enough. This is why I preferred chemistry to CS at the start of high school. Then I actually gave programming a try and discovered converting between number bases, which was much more on the mathematical side of things and so much more fun for me. Also, the extra programming classes were much better suited to me than the ones we had for chemistry. I think the teacher was much better. They weren’t as overwhelmingly intense and I think that played a big part in getting me hooked.

I know you took up a double major, in CS and mathematics. Was it very intense?

In practice, there is a lot of overlap between the two courses. This is especially true at the start, the first year of CS is very math-heavy. For example, there is a mathematical analysis class for both majors, the mathematics one is just more formal and in-depth. All that changed for me was that I swapped the CS version of the overlapping classes for their math equivalents, so it wasn’t as intense as you might anticipate. My university facilitates this a lot, so there wasn’t even a mountain of paperwork to get through. There are fewer classes that overlap later on, but it’s still doable. I will formally complete my bachelor’s in mathematics one year later, however, but that really is nothing more than a formality. I took them in parallel from the start.

What did you do outside of your studies during your bachelor’s? Any international opportunities or internships? How was it different from high school?

The first big difference is that I didn’t do any more olympiads, even though there are university-level competitions as well. I was tired of the competitive side of things and satisfied with where I was. Instead, I looked into international internships, as there are often a lot of such opportunities for CS students. I ended up doing four: at Openstack (within Outreachy), Google, Microsoft and Jane Street. The last one breaks my heart a little bit because I was supposed to go to London for it, but the pandemic prevented that from happening.

Can you tell us a bit more about those experiences? What do you remember the most? And would you recommend it to others, when they have the chance to take up such things again?

I would definitely recommend it! I enjoyed the work side of things, of course, and I think I learned a lot, but I am most grateful for the memories I got of everything around the internship itself. It was a unique chance to go live somewhere temporarily – halfway between just going on holiday for a short while and moving. You can take your time exploring, but you know you’re coming back, so your perspective on it is totally different. A lot of people from Poland go to work abroad after getting a degree in CS, and internships are a good test run of sorts.

When it comes to which one I remember (or liked) the most, I don’t like comparing experiences, but I will point out Google STEP in Dublin, where I spent three months. I’ve always liked visiting different cultures – even though these were all still fairly similar, which is why I personally would have enjoyed going somewhere even more different, say, in Asia or Africa, but I’ll be happy to go as a tourist when the time comes – and Irish culture was especially captivating. I remember watching a movie trilogy on Irish folklore and being there was like seeing those films come to life before my eyes. Dublin alone was extremely memorable, too. It’s smaller than Warsaw and very flat, but I had a friend with whom I could go on day trips hiking with an ocean view. That’s something you simply cannot get where I’m from. I believe I could go on rambling forever about Ireland, it was one of the best parts of my bachelor’s.

I’m really glad you managed to grab those opportunities when they showed up. Now, after finishing your degree, how did you decide where to go from there? Did you think about going abroad, considering the breadth of your international experiences?

As computer science offers a lot of internships, I had already spent a lot of time working on CS-heavy projects, and so I chose a very CS-heavy, practical seminar for my master’s. I haven’t started working on a thesis yet, I’m still just taking regular classes for now, but I can see the direction it’s taking so far. Even though I didn’t compete much during my bachelor’s, I didn’t abstain completely – I participated in a team competition in my third year where the goal was to build a cluster together. A cluster, in this case, is a supercomputer, or rather a few computers connected by a very fast network. And I loved it! It led me to distributed systems, which are (simply put) systems that run in parallel and interact on many networked computers as long as they are connected. That is my main area of interest right now.

Of course I considered going abroad – quite seriously, too – but I wanted to finish what I started here. I still have to complete my BSc in mathematics, so I did not want to leave with my thesis unfinished. There were also some classes I still wanted to take. In hindsight, funnily enough, I probably could have gone because the pandemic would have allowed me to work on both a master’s abroad and a bachelor’s in Warsaw, considering everything is done remotely anyway.

Summer School of Science

Now, let’s talk a bit about your experience with the Summer School of Science. How did you find out about S3? What made you apply?

I genuinely cannot remember how I stumbled upon it anymore. All I know is that it looked very cool, enough for me to apply without going back and forth too much. It’s usually enough for something like this to look cool for me to try it, actually, and this was very up my alley. I already knew I wanted to do STEM in life, so S3 was the perfect summer activity for me.

Can you tell us a bit about your project? Did it impact the work you do today?

We worked on genetic algorithms. To explain, think about a simple swinging pendulum for a start. Let’s say you have data about its motion, and you want to figure out an equation to describe it. This is a simple case, one you can maybe even solve analytically, but there are more complex systems for which you won’t be able to. This is where you can use an algorithm to find a fitting equation for you. Genetic algorithms get their name from their evolving nature: you start with some random equations and see which ones match your data well (or at least not terribly). You take those that performed the best, based on some predefined margin, make small adjustments and repeat – like evolution by natural selection.

We worked in Python for the full duration of the camp and it was truly very enjoyable. Fulfilling, even. It was super satisfying to get the final product at the end, something we’ve made. It also relates to my current work. I liked optimizing things even back then, so I continued working on it after the Summer School was over. The library we used was way too big for our needs, so I made adjustments to make it speedier. It was additional proof that such work was right for me.

S3++ 2017 group photo, after the final presentation.

Any other memories from the camp? Would you come back?

I already mentioned how much I love exploring different cultures – S3 was a very unique experience when it comes to this. I had been to international camps before during high school and they were totally different. I went to two math camps in the US, Canada/USA Math Camp and Stanford University Mathematics Camp. They were both much more material-focused, heavy with university-level math. That was great, it showed me I would enjoy taking in-depth math courses, but the vibe of those two camps isn’t comparable to that of S3. I think the location plays a big part, not just the nature of the camps.

I was quite shy and one of the last people to arrive, so I didn’t keep in touch with too many people. I didn’t feel super comfortable back then, but I’ve changed a lot since and I think the added experience helped a lot. If I didn’t have such busy summers, I would sign up for more S3 anytime! I really loved how it felt like the people there were just showing you what they personally liked, instead of following a strict predetermined curriculum. It’s like how at university you can just tell when a professor truly likes their class, the whole thing is much more enjoyable. I would like to do that for someone too.

And lastly, is there any advice you would give to your younger self?

Most of all, worry less. When I was 17 or 18, I stressed out a lot about many things, maybe more than I should have. I now see how minor some of them were. Also, do things that are fun. Things that are fun are usually also the things that are good in life, especially if your passion is something you can actively work on. And finally, don’t try to optimize everything. However much I like it, not everything needs to be perfected.

Thanks, Iwona, for granting us your time and sharing your story. I’m sure there are many in our audience who will find yourself in bits of it.

Have a question for Iwona? Don’t feel the need to hold back – ask away in the comments or contact us for more info!

By Laura Busak

Laura is a physics student with a love for all things cosmic. She enjoys making and listening to music, reading books that make her think, and generally doing whatever random things she thinks of, often until 2 am.

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