Full name: Walker Demel
Major(s)/minor(s): Computer Science, Mathematics, and Music Performance—Piano Pedagogy
Graduation year: 2021
Employer name and title: PhD student at Northwestern University
What interested you in your declared major/minor?
My three majors don’t necessarily make sense at first glance, but they all fall under the same umbrella of problem solving. Whether it’s drilling a tough spot in a piano piece, proving a theorem, or debugging code, they all scratch that itch to solve a problem.
Butler was uniquely flexible in working with me to create my own path. The “music and more” initiative in JCA meant I could study what I wanted, without having to limit myself to one thing. That’s not something most schools do. I think that the opportunity to learn such a broad range of things really enriched my time at Butler.
What experiential-focused opportunities did you have with your declared major/minor?
My first experience of the research process was in the Mathematics Research Conference (MRC, colloquially known as “math camp”) at Butler. I loved getting to dig into problems no one else in the world had solved before. I used that experience as a springboard to participate in the NASA Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) the summer before my senior year. There, I studied the effects of photovoltaic solar panels on land surface temperature—all from a NASA DC-8 flying laboratory.
I also got several outside music gigs through professors who got to know me personally during class. I worked as a section leader for a church, accompanist for a children’s choir, and piano teacher. I also saw plenty of concerts in Indy—there’s a thriving music scene in that city that I didn’t expect.
Butler allowed me to nourish both my excitement with STEM research and my love of music at the same time—without compromising on either one. My professors connected with me on a personal level and actively supported my development. It was so helpful to have them in my corner like that, and I cannot thank them enough.
What do you do in your current position and how did Butler prepare you for it?
I am currently a PhD student studying Artificial Intelligence at Northwestern University, where I build psychologically-grounded systems that aim to think, reason, and understand in the way we do. I got my first look at AI through an introductory course at Butler and have been learning more ever since. My Butler computer science professors prepared me well for what I’m doing now. A strong theoretical background along with a practical skillset serve as the foundation for my current research.
Being a PhD student also means I am occasionally a teaching assistant. This is something I got some practice doing at Butler for a parallel algorithms course.
During my time at Butler, I had a couple leadership roles (student conduct board member, President of Out of the Dawg House A Cappella) that have built relevant soft skills to my day-to-day at Northwestern Unviersity. I am on a PhD advisory committee that communicates student needs to department coordinators. I also am a part of a club that organizes social events for PhD students.
What are your long-term career goals?
I’m not sure at the moment. Getting a PhD in computer science usually means a career in research in either an industry or academic lab, but I’m early on in this process. My guess is I’ll do a little exploring of both before I know where I best fit.
What advice would you give a first-year student as you reflect back on your experience at Butler?
The programs and the people at Butler offer so much. Your time there really is what you make of it, so take a chance on a class with a strange-sounding name, or join a club you wouldn’t have thought to. Walk into buildings you have no business being in, and find someone to show you what they do. Butler is full of people who are in your corner and fighting for your success—even if you never meet them. Seek out and take advantage of every interesting opportunity you can find—that to me was the most valuable part about being a Bulldog.