In college, she decided to study aeronautical engineering; however, the year she graduated, almost no one in her major got a job because the aeronautical industry faced lay-offs of many employees. At that time, she says, “I was sort of lost. I didn’t know what to do. So I ended up doing a few different things in my twenties. I worked for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), I was a defense contractor for the Air Force at the Pentagon; so I mean I did a few things.”
It was around this time that Galanos realized that her true calling was teaching. Many of her friends became teachers and “hearing about their day, their stories, and their passion and enthusiasm they had for working with youth” inspired her to go to graduate school to become a teacher. At first, she became a math teacher because of her strong math and physics background.
After teaching math for two years, a spot for teaching computer science opened up. She recounts, “Someone asked me if I knew how to program, and I said, ‘Well, sure I know how to program, but you can teach programming?’ ” Since 2003, she has been teaching Computer Science and says, “Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
One particular experience as a young scientist opened her eyes to the discrimination women face in the workforce. As a defense contractor for the Pentagon, she worked in a lab with about 15 other males, focusing on aircraft simulation in the Theater Battle Arena. One day, a colonel walked in with a question that was for Galanos to answer, but instead, he went up to a man to ask that question. When her colleague redirected the question to her, the colonel responded, “Please come with me to her station and explain to me what she’s working on.” She recalls, “He had no interest in speaking to me directly. And I was young at the time; I had never experienced that situation. I felt so badly, but I didn't know what to do. Now I see it; I’m aware of it, and I encourage other women to stand up for themselves, talk about it, you know, try to spread the word that this is still going on and we need to help people understand that it’s not okay.”
She also strives to remove gender bias from her classroom. For example, she says, “If I need a computer to be fixed and there are 50/50 girls and boys in the room, and I ask a boy, ‘Can you come fix my computer?’ am I saying to the women, ‘I don’t think you can fix it’? Maybe that’s a subtle thing, but if women are around, they’re like, ‘Well, why did she choose him? Why does he know how to fix computers? We all know how to fix computers.’ ” However, she accepts that sometimes she does mess up; “If I’m having a conversation, that little word ‘he’ slips out. Now, I’m aware of it, and I’m trying to change, but just like I do that with doctors, people do that with computer scientists all the time.”
Her advice for young scientists, particularly coders: persistence is essential for success. “As someone who writes code, you’re going to fail multiple times in your programs, and what makes you a successful person versus your friend is the person who sticks with it. Oh, it didn’t work the first 700 times? Well, you keep at it, and that persistence is necessary in our field. I mean that on the coding side, and also in dealing with inequity in the workplace.”
“I love that I can make my computer solve problems for me. Sure, I think computing can also solve the world’s problems and it should, but I love that when my computer doesn’t currently do something I want it to, I can write a few lines of code to make it do what I want it to.”
Ask any student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology who’s had her for AP Computer Science or Mobile App Development and they will almost certainly tell you that Miss Ria Galanos is one of the best teachers they’ve ever had. She encourages girls to study computer science and sponsors Coding Lady Colonials, which invites girls (and boys!) to come and code with friends while learning something new. This year, with her guidance, Coding Lady Colonials organized HackTJ, a local hackathon that brought together high school students from around Northern Virginia to hack away for 24 hours.
“As someone who writes code, you’re going to fail multiple times in your programs, and what makes you a successful person versus your friend is the person who sticks with it. Oh, it didn’t work the first 700 times? Well, you keep at it, and that persistence is necessary in our field.
Niharika Vattikonda is currently a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia – she loves biology and computer science. She recently completed a yearlong freshman research project on the effect of electromagnetic fields on E. coli. She first was exposed to Computer Science in middle school, when she learned coding in HTML/CSS, studied Java in freshman year, and is now learning app development on her own. Niharika enjoys STEM outreach, starting science clubs for girls at elementary schools and volunteering at science fairs and hackathons. When she’s not coding or writing for Scientista, Niharika enjoys debating, participating in Model United Nations, singing, and writing for her own blog, Teen Thoughts on Politics.