Release Date: May 14, 2015
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Even the best early science fiction writing occasionally avoided the problem of language, never addressing how inhabitants of different worlds effortlessly communicated with each other. The assumption was that everyone spoke English, at least until the late 1940s when one writer introduced a translation device that made alien languages instantly understandable to earthly ears.
Mention the idea of that universal translator to University at Buffalo senior Natasha Sanford and, though not a science fiction fan, she immediately starts solving the problem of real-time, speech-based translation.
“Google Translate does this today in text-based form, but there would have to be some artificial intelligence at work if such a device wasn’t already programmed with the two languages in question,” she says. “There would be a lot to figure out. We’re talking about an incredibly complicated system.”
Although complicated, Sanford might have the skill set to actually develop such a tool. She will graduate with the UB Honors College on May 15 with Bachelor of Science degrees in mathematics and computer science, plus a minor in linguistics.
She is one of 55 UB students who will graduate with two or more majors, plus a minor, this spring. Just 356 of UB’s 3,311 seniors will graduate with two or more majors.
“Natasha’s background is a wonderful combination of left brain and right brain,” says Bruce Pitman, dean of the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “And she enters the job market bringing together math, CS, and linguistics – a potent combination for many employers.”
And that includes FactSet, a multinational financial data and software company which recently hired Sanford as a software engineer.
"Employers continue to tell us that they are looking for graduates who can demonstrate their ability to think critically and problem solve effectively,” say Arlene Kaukus, UB’s director of career services. “Studying different disciplines enables a student to develop different approaches to addressing a problem or challenge. Such versatility and creativity is valued in today's world of work."
Sanford, a Louisville, Kentucky, native, won’t be talking to Martians when she begins work at the company’s headquarters in Norwalk, Connecticut, but she will be solving problems, what she sees as the basic role of a software engineer.
And problem solving is what Sanford loves.
In fact, she envisions computers as potential communicators that one day might connect people separated by language.
Sanford originally wanted to go into cryptography, a math-based field that relies heavily on computers. That helped determine her choice of undergraduate programs.
She says linguistics, the study of languages, was a logical complement to cryptography which is fundamentally about language.
“Linguistics is math with words,” she says. “I like analyzing languages and there are so many computer applications that go with it.”
The appeal of those applications led to a shift in focus away from math and toward IT. But if computer science and linguistics were previously supporting her math goals, then math and linguistics could just as easily support her computer science ambitions.
It all sounds overwhelming, but Sanford says otherwise.
“Outside of my general education requirements, my course work has been limited to these three fields,” she says. “It’s manageable and I enjoy it. It might have become more difficult had I started exploring subjects outside of my majors and minor.”
“You need a plan,” she says. “Before you write a single line of code you have to design a system.”
For Sanford, that plan will always be about problem solving.
“That’s where I want to be 10 years from now, a place that has interesting problems to solve.”