Computer science student Omayra Diaz has had a rare opportunity while at Laurel Ridge – she was selected by Indiana University for a paid Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) funded by the National Science Foundation.
Diaz, a Stephens City mother of two, and her group studied how informatics and wearable technology could help keep older adults in their homes longer. She learned about the opportunity after attending one of Laurel Ridge’s Tech Bytes: Technology Talks with Industry.
The talk series was organized by Computer Science Professor Melissa Stange and funded by a grant the college received as part of the 2019 NCWIT Academic Alliance Seed Fund powered by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) with support from Microsoft Research. The grant is designed to attract more women and minorities to the computer field.
The talk Diaz attended was given by Dr. Kay Connelly, associate dean for research at Indiana University’s School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, who discussed the work of the university’s Proactive Health Informatics Group – for which she is the director. Diaz took to heart Dean Connelly’s message that students could reach out to her to learn more.
“I enjoyed it,” Diaz said of the research project. “It was something brand new, a lot to learn. I thought I was going to be learning more about things they’ve already done, but it was actually more exciting because it gave me the liberty to be creative and free in the way I thought of things.”
She had planned to go to Rutgers University after high school, but spent about a year in the hospital after becoming paralyzed. Regaining motor skills five years later, she attended community college in New Jersey, later took business classes, and also attained her cosmetology license. Diaz moved to Virginia following the birth of her first child.
She decided to enroll at Laurel Ridge after she was laid off from her digital media executive job due to her position being outsourced overseas.
“That layoff allowed my kids to see if you don’t get that education…if you don’t have a degree, how do you find another position?” Diaz said. “A degree is something I’ve always wanted and never got to complete. It’s never too late.”
Diaz earned a certificate in August and is continuing on her degree path, expecting to earn associate degrees in computer science and computational data science in December 2021. Her goal is to earn her bachelor’s degree through ODUOnline, which has a presence on campus, and work in research and data analysis.
She has been enjoying her classes at Laurel Ridge.
“My professors have been great,” Diaz said. “I think Dr. Stange is amazing. She has taught me so much. I have taken nearly every single one of her classes. She has been my rock since I started and has given me so much advice. I look up to her – she’s so intelligent and she’s done so much.”
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.