4 Questions with Krystal A. Maughan

PhD student at the University of Vermont

Krystal (she/her) is currently a PhD student at the University of Vermont. Her focus is on Differential Privacy, Fairness and Machine Learning, because she believes that good tech is fair, accountable, and transparent for all people.

Krystal has done a workshop at Jet Propulsion Lab, interned at Apple, and will be interning at Autodesk Pier 9 this summer through Code2040’s Fellowship Program.

I was born in Point Fortin, but moved to Couva, Trinidad and Tobago.

In high school, I studied Physics, Maths, and Art, but I didn’t see Engineering as creative, because if you understand the postcolonial history of colonized countries, you understand that a lot of the infrastructure set up by our colonizers was set up to be maintained, and not to spawn new ideas or put decisions in the hands of the colonized (for example, deferring legal matters to the Privy council in the UK). They did not set up our infrastructure to assist in investing in our research and development locally, or with any longevity.

“I didn’t see Engineering as creative, because if you understand the postcolonial history of colonized countries, you understand that a lot of the infrastructure set up by our colonizers was set up to be maintained, and not to spawn new ideas.”

So as a teenager, I saw film as being the perfect blend of technical and creative, particularly the technical side of film. I fell in love with technologies like the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) in Beauty and the Beast, and the behind-the-scenes of other Disney VHS movies growing up.

I went on to work as a technician for an incredibly niche film and lighting technology for several years, high speed film and lighting — until I realized one day at work that I would never be taught welding and soldering professionally, nor Computer-Aided Detection (CAD), as I’d been promised.

I decided to take matters into my own hands: I took night classes. I started learning CAD (Vectorworks and Rhino), then VFX software (Modo, Zbrush, Maya), welding, machining and woodworking. I finally settled (by accident) into a shop next to my woodshop that used node-based modelling for parametric modelling to control robots. They were hosting a workshop while my wooden cutting boards were drying, so I walked in and asked them what they were doing. (They were making 3-axis robots out of acrylic, controlled with 12v motors, and using node-based programming to control them.)

I found it all fascinating. I kept taking classes there until I was told that since I seemed to like robots so much, I should go to night school. So I took my first robotics night class, and since no one wanted to program the robot, I ended up doing it. I was hooked, and I fell in love with Haskell and functional programming along the way.

“I took my first robotics night class, and since no one wanted to program the robot, I ended up doing it. I was hooked, and I fell in love with Haskell and functional programming along the way.”

My love for robotics took me to a workshop at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and my love for programming took me to an ACM Conference called Principles of Programming Languages, where the professors told me I might be a good fit for a PhD. Shortly thereafter, I applied to grad school. While waiting, I did Google Summer of Code in Haskell (for Haskell.org), Mozilla’s Rust Reach (both open source coding opportunities), then an internship at Apple and one in Haskell.

Just before I was boarding the flight for my internship at Apple, I found out that I was accepted for PhD candidacy. So, I did my internships in the Bay Area, came back to Los Angeles for a week, gave away everything I had owned in the past ten years besides two suitcases, and started grad school in Computer Science.

Staying in the country, and the entire green card process, was rough. I went through a lot of setbacks, the worst of most people I’ve known.

I got laid off right after I obtained my first work visa and had to get a new one in 90 days, or I would have to leave the country. Someone was also threatening my immigration lawyers to report me to immigration out of ill-will (and I wasn’t even undocumented). I also had to find a new lease, all in the same week, and my laptop broke so I had to go to the Mac store nearby to apply for jobs, using their WiFi.

I was able to get a new job in 13 days, but in order to transfer my visa, I also had to leave the country and come back in. My friend, a camera guy, drove me to the Tijuana border. I walked over, got my stamp, and came back in. I remember attending a screening at Dreamworks the next morning, passport stamp in hand, feeling so grateful that I had made it so far. I was safe, if even for a bit.

“I was safe, if even for a bit.”

When I was in undergrad, I was supposed to work on a Spike Lee movie (Inside Man) as an intern, but that fell through because someone I usually stayed by could no longer accommodate me. So I knocked around New York City all summer and interned at four different companies, depending on the generosity of friends, staying a month here and there on their couches, pulling five bags through the subway to get from one place to the next. I matured a lot in that one summer, and the longest internship I ended up taking gave me a present for being their best intern. (I didn’t have a permanent place to stay, so I just worked at the office as long as I could.) They told me I was always welcome back.

Being true to myself, and being brave. Not giving up and having immense grit throughout my experience moving to the U.S. to pursue a career.

Everything; everything has been worth it. I’m excited for the future. It keeps getting better.

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