It would be easy to say that Nicole Torcolini (2007 Seattle-area Award for Aspirations in Computing recipient) faced more obstacles than most young women who pursue studies and careers in the male-dominated field of computing; but in Nicole's case she literally didn't see the obstacles in her way. She lost most of her sight at age four due to cancer in the optic chiasm, and the cancer treatment she received caused her to become slightly hard-of-hearing in both ears. However, she refused to let these adversities stop her from doing the things she enjoys, including horseback riding, playing the violin, and studying computing.
While a student at Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, Washington, Nicole attended a University of Washington workshop for the blind hosted by Dr. Richard Ladner, a renowned leader in access technology for the disabled. The workshop inspired her to invent the Nemetex Nemeth Back-Translator, a computer-based assistive technology device that translates visually incomprehensible braille math (Nemeth), produced on an electronic braille notetaker, into easily-readable print. Nicole became a high school entrepreneur, launching a small business to market the device to other blind students like her. This was just the beginning of Nicole's journey to help build tools for vetting and enabling accessibility in technology.
Nicole attended Stanford University and graduated in 2012, earning a BS in Computer Science with a focus in Human-Computer Interaction. She says that although the college experience was challenging (in a good way), she was pleasantly surprised by the variety of educational and cultural opportunities available to her at Stanford and in the Bay Area. Her Women and Disabilities class was a favorite: her professor was also blind and had a guide dog, just like Nicole does.
While a student, Nicole greatly benefited from her participation in numerous workshops and special programs to develop her interest in computer programming — including Microsoft's DigiGirlz, DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) at the University of Washington, the National Federation of the Blind's Rocket-On Camp, and the Distributed Research Experiences for Undergraduates (DREU) program. She credits the Office of Accessible Education at Stanford and theWashington Council for the Blind as being instrumental to her success. In addition to winning the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing, Nicole received a 2011 Google Lime Scholarship and Microsoft's You Can Make a Difference (YCMD) Award. She also completed summer internships in the Accessibility Departments of Microsoft and Yahoo!
These days, Nicole spends most of her time working at Google as a Software Engineer in Test, writing code that runs tests on Google+ and assisting a team that helps improve the accessibility of Google+. She has helped to develop assistive technology solutions for Benetech, a Silicon Valley non-profit, and worked with NASA on the Math Description Engine (MDE), graphing software that can convey the shape of graphs aurally. Nicole also participated in other assistive technology projects that were not software-based, including helping the Astronomy Department at the University of Washington develop a hands-on astronomy curriculum for the blind.
Nicole is a terrific reminder of the importance of bringing people with diverse backgrounds into technology. She has used her own experiences and perspectives not only to help design technology that improves accessibility for others like her, but to improve technology's impact on all of us.