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Photo: Kayleigh Ryley

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A Modern-Day Ada Lovelace
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USC Viterbi senior Ruyan Chen channels the spirit, innovation and unquenchable thirst for knowledge of one of the founding figures in the history of computing.

“The more I study,” wrote Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, “the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be.” Falling within weeks of her 200th birthday, this year’s Ada Lovelace Day celebration honors its namesake’s contributions to the field of computing as well as her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a passion shared by multitudes of aspiring scientists and engineers today.

Among them, USC Viterbi senior Ruyan Chen sees the spirit of Ada Lovelace at work every day in the technological landscape around her.

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“You see a gap in the technology that you want to bridge,” she said, “and you know you want to do something.”

And do something she has. Since arriving on campus in 2012 as a Trustee Scholar, Chen has galvanized the computer science community as a student leader, event organizer and engineer.

To her, the word “hack” embodies a drive to create, and she’s constantly looking for ways to innovate solutions to real world problems. In 2013, she co-developed SCheduler, a Web application that assists USC students in planning courses. That same year, AAlert — a mobile app that notifies the hearing impaired in emergencies — took first place at the USC Transmedia Forum. Chen thrives on collaborative energy, a staple of campus “hackathons.”

“A bunch of like-minded people get together and make something,” she said. “It’s about working together and learning new technologies.”

Last fall, Chen co-organized the largest HackSC event so far, drawing more than 730 participants from across the country to brainstorm, build and test their prototypes over 36 hours. She’s proud of how far the hackathon has come, all while staying true to its founding principles.

“Hackathons nowadays are getting more and more about the sponsors, and we wanted to bring it back and focus on the people attending,” she said. “Hackathons aren’t about winning. They’re about being able to say, ‘This is a cool idea, and you’ve given me the time and the space to work on it.’”

Thanks to events like these, Chen feels at home in Southern California’s thriving tech environment, her East Coast roots notwithstanding. After moving from China with her parents at age 5, she grew up in Wilmington, Del. — a world far different from that of her idol, Ada Lovelace.

Born into wealth and influence as the daughter of famed Romantic poet Lord Byron, the Countess of Lovelace pursued her interest in mathematics against society’s expectations. She is celebrated today as a founding figure in the history of computing.

USC Viterbi Computer Science Assistant Professor William G.J. Halfond sees that drive to excel mirrored in Chen, who spent hours each week as a freshman and sophomore working in his research group. “Right away I was struck by how diligent she was, how hard working,” he said. “She’s very passionate about programming. Whenever I would ask her to do something that could have been done manually, she would run off and write a program that would do it automatically. She truly is exceptional.”

Passion and diligence aside, Chen recognizes the opportunities she’s had as a gift, one that she strives to pay forward.

“Technology has always been really accessible to me,” she said, “but it’s not always as accessible to other people. I want to help with that.

A veteran teaching assistant, CS course producer, and current president of USC’s chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, Chen has followed through on that promise. Both in and out of the classroom, she’s made it her mission to bring students into the computer science fold.

“Some people come in and they feel intimidated,” she said. “I really want them to feel like it’s okay to come in not knowing anything. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s something that anyone can get into.”

With diversity in the tech sector on the rise, that’s truer now than ever before, though women still face many challenges. “Women in computer science are still a minority right now,” Chen said, “and it is slowly changing. But it’s always in the back of your mind. I’d like to see it become more equal.”

Undaunted, she aims to be part of that change. Following in the footsteps of Ada Lovelace, she looks forward to a future filled with creativity, collaboration and an insatiable drive to learn.