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Thursday, November 30, 2023 — Houston, TX

Senior Spotlight: Nicole Tan talks engineering and dancing at Rice


 Nicole Tan, a Sid Richardson College senior, spent much of her time in high school dancing and engineering with the robotics team. These interests followed her to Rice. (Allen Sellers/Thresher)

By Shiyu Miao     10/6/20 9:47pm

In the first week of Nicole Tan’s freshman year, Hurricane Harvey arrived in Houston and devastated the city. Tan, who is from Philadelphia, said she had never experienced a natural disaster like Harvey before.

“I had experience with hurricanes before, but not to this level,” Tan, a Sid Richardson College senior, said. “It was very much a bonding experience for my class.”

Hurricane Harvey ended up defining more for Tan than just her freshman year. Tan is majoring in electrical engineering, and the summer after her freshman year, she became involved with a senior design project through the department’s vertically integrated projects program. The project — designing a low-power flood sensor, which is a network of sensors that can measure flood signals and observe how water flows around the city — was largely inspired by Hurricane Harvey, according to Tan. She’s worked on it every year since, and this year, the low-power flood sensor is the focus of her senior design project.

When Tan was a high schooler in Philadelphia, she did not know much about Rice. That changed when she accompanied her family on a business trip to Houston and her mom encouraged her to pay a visit. After applying and getting accepted, Tan visited during Owl Days, during which she said she was impressed by Rice’s enthusiastic students and welcoming environment.

It was Tan’s involvement in her high school robotics team that encouraged her to take this interest forward at Rice and major in electrical engineering. Although she was considering majoring in computer science, Tan said she ultimately settled on electrical engineering because of the strong sense of community within the major, and that she especially loves her classes with design or project components, such as her senior design project.

“We take a lot of classes, and we take a lot of classes together, so I got to know [the other electrical engineering majors] really well,” Tan said. “Everyone is really willing to collaborate and share and help other people, so I really like the culture.”

Tan also engages with the electrical engineering community outside of the classroom. This year, Tan and two of her friends revived a club named ShELECs, which aims to empower and create a community for women and nonbinary electrical engineering majors.

“It’s hard for you to imagine yourself doing something if you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing that thing,” Tan said. “ShELECs is about building a community and empowering women and nonbinary [electrical engineers], giving them a community to have people who have had experiences that are similar to them.”

Tan’s interest in engineering isn’t the only thing that has stayed with her since high school.

“When I was in high school, I was very much defined by dance and robotics, and when I came to college, I feel like it was the exact same thing,” Tan said.

Tan has been dancing since she was five years old. When she got to Rice, Tan was first involved in the Rice Owls Dance Team, which she said she enjoyed but eventually dropped because attending the various performance events was a non-negotiable time commitment. Now, she works with Rice Dance Theater, a dance company that focuses primarily on modern and lyrical dancing, although Tan has been able to work with a wide range of dance styles in her time with the team.

Tan said she enjoys the mind-body connection she experiences when she dances.

“I've been doing it for a really long time. And I just really like it,” Tan said. “It's like a good brain break, but it’s also not mindless. I like being able to think about where my body is, and just the spatial awareness of how I move.”

Right now, Tan is enrolled in two classes as a part-time student as she continues working at Cisco Systems, where she was a software intern over the summer. She has been working remotely on building a health telemetry system to diagnose the functionality of Cisco’s products. 

Tan said she is hoping for a full-time offer while recruiting with smaller businesses at the same time. In searching for her dream job, Tan has a clear idea of what she wants.

“What I’m looking for in a ‘good job’ is different than what other people are looking for. Amongst people who are going into software, the big companies are definitely like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool that you got in, that’s a really big feat,’ but I’m more looking for something that I can buy into the mission statement and buy into their values,” Tan said. “One of the most important things for me is that I feel like a valued member of the company as a whole and I understand my role and why it’s important.”

Tan also said she hopes to further her education by getting a master’s degree in engineering. She said she wants to work in machine learning and artificial intelligence, especially addressing the potential biases in machine learning algorithms.

“If your training data is biased, then your results are also going to be biased, so like how do you overcome it?” Tan said. “Being able to recognize those biases, and making real change in technology and the algorithms that you're using is cool.”

While Tan is thinking about her future, she is also thinking about the present. Tan said she planned on having a lot of fun during her senior year, and that although she still is, she misses what Rice looked like before the pandemic.

“I really miss a lot of the rituals, like the yearly things that I thought I would be able to do again,” Tan said. “Beer Bike got canceled. We don't know if Beer Bike is happening this year. Sid ’80s usually happens at around this time ... it’s my favorite public.”  

Beyond large events, Tan said she also misses the day-to-day life of being on campus.

“I miss just bumping into people on campus and seeing people around. I barely leave my house nowadays, because I just have so much work,” Tan said. “I just wish we could get some semblance of a normal semester, a normal year, back.”

Recently, Tan said, she has been putting more energy into being an active friend — the importance of which she said has been underlined by the pandemic. It is something she suspects that a lot of Rice students struggle with.

“I think this is pretty common amongst Rice students. You love what you do, you love academics — that’s kind of why we all got into Rice, we’re good at this,” Tan said. “So it’s super easy for me to just get lost in my classes, so I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to reach out to my friends and check in on them.”

Still, from being an [electrical engineering major] to advising at Sid three times, Tan said she has loved her time at Rice and that she is looking forward to the time she has left.

“I had a really good time at Rice,” Tan said. “Even though I worked a lot, I always worked with other [electrical engineers], so I never felt alone.”

Editor’s Note: This is an installment of Senior Spotlights, a series intended to explore the stories of graduating seniors, who are chosen at random to participate.

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