Even as a child, Makenzie Whitener was a Demon Deacon fan and Wake Forest was her dream school. Growing up in the area, she spent time on campus, as both of her parents work as staff members for the university.
In the past few weeks, Whitener’s mind has been “constantly flashing back” to the moment when, as an admitted student at Accepted Students Day, she saw the “Welcome Class of 2018” banner and her dream school was realized.
Four years later, Whitener is graduating with a double major in biology and computer science. In the fall, she plans to get her PhD at the University of Georgia’s Integrated Life Sciences program, where she will be studying plant biology and/or genetics.
While she has always been passionate about biology, she enjoys the challenge that computer science presents, and feels that its intersection with biology is where she thrives.
“What I love doing in biology hinges so much on computer science, which I might not enjoy in the moment, but when I figure a problem out, it is the greatest feeling in the world,” Whitener said.
She spends a lot of time doing outreach both on campus and the community, encouraging younger students and women to consider STEM fields, specifically computer science. She has been a member of Women in Computer Science, Women in STEM, Rotaract club and Middle School Mentor Program. Since her sophomore year, Whitener has been the secretary for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) club.
“Being able to do outreach to women in science has really defined who I am as a women in science,” Whitener said. “I think it’s really cool, and I want other people to think it’s cool, too.”
“Her friendliness and personality has made her a pure joy both to have as a student in my classroom and to have as a student in our department,” said William Turkett, a professor in the computer science department. He added that she has become “a key face of the department” over the years.
In the future, Whitener hopes to become a teaching professor at a small college similar to Wake Forest, or to teach computer science to students who might not otherwise study it.
“I want to bring it full-circle, trying to get women into computer science,” Whitener said. “Women bring a unique perspective, and you’d be surprised by the breadth that computer science covers and how many different topics you can get into … it’s not just video games.”
“She is not only breaking new ground as she is becoming an accomplished computational scientist, she takes time to pave the way for others to follow in her success too,” said Samuel Cho, a computer science professor.
In addition to her classes, Whitener spent the last two years doing her honors project, entitled “Genomic Analysis of Three Species of NC Magnolia,” a topic she chose for its significance to Wake, as well as the opportunities it presented to integrate both biology and computer science.
While Whitener is excited about her move to Georgia, she is nostalgic about her final days on campus, and especially loves spending time on the upper quad at night, saying “I would sleep there if I could.” She will also miss the friends and compansionship she’s found here.
“Makenzie is a dedicated and talented scientist and we are sad to see her go,” said James Pease, a professor in the biology department. “She has helped create great student connections between biology and computer science at Wake.”