CS Senior Spotlight: Elena Fabian

Fabian will join Berkeley Law this fall as a member of the inaugural class of Berkeley Innovation Scholars studying the intersection of law, technology, and society

During her time at Northwestern, Elena Fabian sparked her curiosity and balanced her focus across computer science, engineering, and social sciences through a mix of what she described as paper-problems (technical acumen) and people-problems (user experience).

Elena FabianFabian graduates in June with a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Northwestern Engineering with a minor in legal studies from Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She will join Berkeley Law this fall as a member of the inaugural class of Berkeley Innovation Scholars studying the intersection of law, technology, and society.

“My research interests lie in daily technology-use and technology-regulation, whether it's creating embedded solutions for individuals or protecting individuals’ values when they aren't in control of emerging technology,” Fabian said.

An active member of the Northwestern Computer Science community, Fabian was recently named among 12 ‘outstanding CS seniors.’ She served as a peer mentor for COMP_SCI 111: Fundamentals of Computer Programming I for one quarter and supported students in the COMP_SCI 213: Intro to Computer Systems course for six quarters. As a member of Professor Peter Dinda’s Prescience Lab, Fabian collaborated on the Privacy Backplane project, which examines computationally enforced and individualized privacy policy in physical spaces.

Fabian was the treasurer for the McCormick School of Engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi and an executive with the Northwestern chapter of the international women’s fraternity Zeta Tau Alpha. She also volunteered at Women in Computing outreach events at local high schools and helped organize engineering outreach events for middle school students in the Evanston/Skokie School District 65. Fabian was also an editor of the Northwestern Undergraduate Law Journal.

She completed her degree requirements in December and has been working with the Emerging Technologies Advanced Engineering Team at the Chamberlain Group through the CRDV 311-1 Professional Engineering Internship.

We asked Fabian about her experiences at Northwestern Engineering, impactful collaborative experiences, and her advice for current students.

Why did you decide to pursue the CS major at McCormick?

I really enjoyed how cross-disciplinary McCormick seemed and how collaborative I found it to be. I also plan on taking the patent bar which has engineering background admission requirements.

Looking at the degree requirements, I realized I could get exposure to several engineering disciplines, explore many areas of computer science, and balance my interest in social interaction with technology through social sciences and humanities courses.

The project and technical elective requirements were my favorite parts because they allowed me to build depth in the computer systems area and ultimately created a systems community. The community-within-a-community benefited my learning style, allowing me to discuss connections between material across classes as opposed to isolating coursework for a single exam.

How did the McCormick curriculum help build a balanced, whole-brain ecosystem around your studies?

The Design Thinking and Communication and Engineering Analysis classes approached a people-problem and a paper-problem, respectively, and both were incredibly helpful in connecting coursework to my internship experience.

In my most recent internship, a team of computer and electrical engineers, industrial designers, and UI/UX designers developed a product over 16 weeks and produced functional, professionally manufactured models. The paper-problems we looked at assessed the feasibility of all the engineering components, from modeling battery life and communication protocols to adhesives. The people-problem we looked at led us to consider ergonomics, device storage, and charging methods, and most importantly, fulfill a project statement based on user needs.

What are some examples of collaborative or interdisciplinary experiences at Northwestern that were impactful to your education and research?

It’s super cool that I was able to count three interdisciplinary McCormick courses toward my legal studies minor. The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering offers the CIV_ENV 302-0: Engineering Law course, which is taught by adjunct professor and attorney Patrick Croke. The course exposed me to many aspects of law that impact engineers — from startup structure to liability.

In addition, in the COMP_SCI 397, 497: Innovation Lab: Building Technologies for the Law course — which is cross-listed in Northwester’s Pritzker School of Law and co-taught by Professors Kristian Hammond and Daniel Linna — I was able to see the impact of technology on the legal field. My team of two computer science undergraduates and three law students built a lightweight e-reader for Omnibus bills.

A third impactful class was Assistant Professor of Instruction Sruti Bhagavatula’s COMP_SCI 312, 412: Data Privacy course, where we explored technical, social, and legal definitions and implementations of privacy.

What skills or knowledge did you learn in the undergraduate program that you think will stay with you for a lifetime?

The process of understanding my learning style and refining my interests will absolutely stay with me for a lifetime. I learned that course summaries are my best exam study technique and make for a great reference. Part of that is verbalizing what I know, so I also like doing work with friends whether they're in the same class or not.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and remote classes, I didn't love school, and getting involved really changed that. Peer mentoring and engaging with the CS community helped me remember that I enjoy the material and renewed my curiosity. A big lesson is to try new things until I find what works and to keep those strategies in my back pocket.

What's next? What are your short- and long-term plans/goals in terms of graduate studies and/or your career path?

I plan on spending the next three years at Berkeley Law as a member of the inaugural class of Berkeley Innovation Scholars. I ultimately want to pursue the intersections of technology and law as a patent lawyer to continue seeing emerging technology developed, as well as exploring emerging regulation of ingrained systems such as the Internet and Internet of Things.

What advice do you have for current Northwestern CS students?

My academic advice is to take the core courses early and go to those office hours. Peer mentors are so ready to help with current course content and future course recommendations.

If you can verbalize a concept, or even the blocking question, you are actively understanding the material and courses are so much more interesting when you work through understanding rather than stress through getting stuff done. You may also find even a harder course more pleasant if you consider your needs when creating a schedule.

In general, give yourself the grace to take what you need. When the work gets tough, remind yourself why you're doing it and look for one new thing you've learned or one interesting connection you can make to anything else important to you.

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