Emma Carlson sips her blackberry lemonade and tucks a stray strawberry blonde strand behind her ear. A smattering of freckles dust her nose, making her appear more like a freshman in high school than a student heading to college.
The teenager cocks her head to the side, thoughtfully weighing each question before answering it. Behind that quiet demeanor, a loud intellectual curiosity has driven Carlson to explore an innovative and ambitious major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her chosen field of study, bioinformatics, combines her love of biology and computers. Decades ago, these two wouldn’t even be considered as an interdisciplinary major. Now that technology has advanced, so have the opportunities for college students like Carlson.
Bioinformatics analyzes, interprets, and collects data, using algorithms to enhance biological research. Simply put, data science can help solve problems in biology such as diving into deeper issues like cancer or genetics. For example, these technological tools could identify a disease and treat it.
If it sounds complicated, bioinformatics is that. When Carlson tells people her major, most have never heard of it. It doesn’t deter Carlson, who hopes to someday make the world better through her career choice.
“I want to be able to see how it directly helps people, that human aspect,” she explains.
Carlson’s interest in all things computer-related emerged in middle school when she stepped into Kristeen Shabram’s business and technology class at Westside Middle School. Along with her parents, Carlson credits her teacher’s mentorship into pushing her each step of the way—even throughout high school. Shabram noticed her quiet student’s talent in eighth grade during a lesson on solving a problem in society. Carlson picked human trafficking, developing an informational platform app to help victims.
The app mentioned the dangers of human trafficking and resources people could contact, which would help victims of human trafficking. Although this app never came to production, it showed Shabram Carlson’s potential in STEM.
“It blew me away as a teacher. From then on, I knew she was going to do great things,” Shabram says. “She is one of those silent, but deadly, people, so when she talks and gives her ideas they are impactful.”
Shabram, the 2016 AIM Tech Educator of the Year, encouraged her to attend the UNO College of Information Science and Technology CodeCrush Immersion Experience. It is an exclusively all-female series, iSTEM dive into a hands-on experience in the Information Technology world such as robotics, cybersecurity, and bioinformatics. Carlson believed it felt “more secure if it’s girls only” when navigating male-dominated waters.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out how to include girls in tech,” she says.
Carlson stayed on campus with other eighth- and ninth-grade students for three days, learning about such topics as genomics. She came out motivated to pursue more technology-related courses at Westside High School. Although many times the only female in the class, Carlson was never intimidated to try AP computer science, welding, and programming. Along the way, she picked up some computer language skills in JAVA, HTML, and Python. Carlson also challenged herself further by taking AP biology.
Carlson teamed up for the annual UNO IT Innovation Cup. Her team came in third her junior year, winning a cash prize, for their creative solution. Carlson continued, individually winning the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing and the AIM’s K-12 Tech Student awards in 2017. On top of that, she furthered her goals by doing an internship with the UNO bioinformatics lab her sophomore year and had three stints applying her technological skills at Gallop’s GET HIP.
Shabram watched Carlson grow into an “inspiring and powerful” young lady who came back to Westside Middle School to mentor future technology students.
“You can see they are like, ‘if Emma did it, I can do it, too. I can make a difference and do these competitions, too.’ Emma has paved the way for them,” Shabram adds.
Carlson, like others, is preparing for college by purchasing dorm room supplies. But unlike some, Carlson is a Scott Scholar for the College of Information and Technology. It means having a free ride, living with other scholars, and taking leadership classes.
She has some advice for other girls interested in computers.
“Find your interest first, then find out how to use technology with it. Sometimes it gets missed how broad it is,” Carlson says.
Visit unomaha.edu for more information.
This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.