Tara O'Grady returned to college after three years away to finish her degree in cognitive science, take on graduate studies in human-computer interaction and pursue a passion to help girls understand they can succeed in technological fields. 

Where were you born and raised?

I was raised in Lake Peekskill in Putnam County, about 4 1/2 hours away from Oswego. I was born in the Bronx, but we moved when I was still a toddler. 

How did you become interested in SUNY Oswego?

I actually started at Manhattan College in chemical engineering. It wasn't for me. I moved on to be a mathematics major and I went to a community college. I applied to SUNY schools, and I liked Oswego. I ended up here in 2011-12, and that's where I found the cognitive science program, which I really loved. But at that time, I had kind of exhausted myself with college and decided college was not for me. I dropped out.

What did you do then?

I was working at home. I had a job as a medical scribe in an emergency room. I just kind of kept thinking back on the cognitive science program. I realized that was what I really wanted to do. I felt like I was kind of missing out. I came back to SUNY Oswego -- I had such great professors in the cognitive science program that I just needed to go back and earn the degree. It was definitely the best decision I ever made. It led me to HCI (the human-computer interaction graduate program). I couldn't be happier.

What intrigued you about HCI?

I was always curious about the way our minds work, and how our environments shape our decision-making. I had never had any experience with programming, but in cognitive science you have to take a few computer science courses. It was really incredible to me how you could represent these complex systems and decision-making in more of a physical sense, like a computing language. When I graduated with cognitive science, I started going to conferences in virtual reality and things like that. I realized you could apply concepts from cognitive science into these interactive technologies and I realized that was definitely the direction I wanted to go in. I think with HCI, you can physically realize the concepts and use them.

What most interests you so far? 

I'm really interested in virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. Before I came back to school, I could actually see other technologies being applied in the emergency room -- things like telemedicine and telecommunication. Without even trying to make them overlap, my experiences in the medical field are directly applicable to topics in HCI. We also did a data visualization course, mining all the data that's available to the public and representing it in a visual way. It's kind of a little obsession of mine at the moment. I'm going to aim for a graduate certificate in information health systems.

What is Girls Who Code and how did you get started with it? 

It's a nonprofit organization that's aimed at closing the gender gap in technology. We work with girls in grades 6 through 12, mostly from Oswego Middle School and High School. Anne Reynolds is a senior going into HCI. She first organized it here and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I was so excited to be on board with that. When I was younger I never had the exposure to programming or things like that. It wasn't until I came back to college in my 20s that I realized this is something I love. To be able to provide these opportunities to young girls -- I was so floored when Anne started putting it together.

What goes on at the meetings?

We meet every week and we do a project-based activity that teaches the girls concepts of coding. We make it fun for them. This past semester, we let them run with their own little projects. Some girls created websites, others used code to generate music, others did games. This semester, we're going to condense it a little and make one big project that they can work on and that we can present as a finished product. It's still in the works -- we don't want to over-plan the project, we want the girls to be creative with it. It's usually a program that provides a representation of problems girls this age are battling, whether it's bullying or self-image or something like that. We want to provide them with a community of women in computing, to show them that they're capable of this, that it's not just sitting behind a computer and that you can be really creative with it.

What else do you do on campus?

I'm the HCI technician. It's a graduate assistant position. I keep track of the equipment; it's available for students to use. It's not just HCI students who are interested -- (for example) we have some cinema students who are interested in using the VR headsets and the 360 cameras. You can see the interdisciplinary interest in HCI by who's taking the equipment. I'm also in the Women in Computing club. We participate in conferences and hackathons. Some of us went to Montreal in November for the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing. Google and IBM were among companies represented -- that was a lot of fun.

What do you think of SUNY Oswego professors?

I really couldn't say better things about (them). I was kind of at the end of my rope with college; I didn't think it was for me. If it hadn't been for professors like Craig Graci and David Vampola and Damian Schofield, I don't think I would have had the drive to get to where I am. I'm just very grateful, because I really love what I'm studying. It was their enthusiasm for it that piqued my interest in the first place.

What do you think of SUNY Oswego students? 

I'm lucky -- a few of my close friends were also students in the cognitive science program. One of the reasons I loved the program so much is that we would all sit in (Shineman Center Room) 442 in the lab and have discussions about topics in cognitive science. That really elevates your critical thinking, because not everything is black and white. You learn not only from your professors, but from your fellow students, too. They may be focused in areas you're not. There are very, very intelligent people you sit next to in class. Their questions and interests make the program that much better. 

What can you tell us about your family?

I have a very close-knit Irish-Catholic family. They supported me all the way through dropping out and working for three years and the decision to come back. I don't think I'd be where I am without their support and their confidence that I could achieve something after I kind of messed it up the first time. My mom is an emergency room nurse who works her butt off. I'm grateful for her. My dad's an electrician and I think he's always supported me in my quests to pursue my interests and find success in whatever I was doing. I have two younger brothers, both incredibly intelligent and doing well.

What are some of your off-campus interests? 

I have a beautiful little puppy that takes up a lot of my time (laughs). She's my little stress reliever. I do a lot of reading. I've been so focused on school, I've been craving adventure sci-fi stories. My favorite thing to do is travel. I have a good group of girlfriends that I like to travel with and plan little trips I might take one day. I've been fortunate to go to India and Thailand.