Computer whiz blends technology, liberal arts
Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs once said he believed that technology, on its own, is not enough: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing,” he explained.
Richard Neal ’15 is a great example of what Jobs meant, and what Wheaton’s curriculum encourages. He is double majoring in computer science and mathematics and also earning a minor in secondary education. Neal is deeply involved in some of the college’s most innovative initiatives, while also serving as a teaching assistant and a tutor. On top of all that, he plans to graduate in just three years.
Neal, who grew up in a suburb outside Boston, said that technology has always been a major part of his life, but he didn’t arrive at Wheaton planning to major in computer science. However, he was drawn in by a few introductory classes and encouragement from two professors of computer science, Mark LeBlanc and Tom Armstrong. Neal has done independent studies with both professors; during one he helped create cowDuck, a free iPhone app that provides Wheaton students with information about the college.
LeBlanc, who is Neal’s academic advisor, called him one of the strongest programmers he’d encountered in 20 years. “He is a rock star,” LeBlanc declared. “And he is a complete gentleman.”
Neal’s programming skills have been a boon to Wheaton’s Lexomics Research Group, which uses English, math and computer science to analyze written material for unknown connections. Neal described the research group as “a perfect example of the way Wheaton is able to blend courses, ideas and research across disciplines.” In one case, a student used Lexomics to determine that parts of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had actually been written by his son, Christopher.
Neal stayed on campus last summer to develop a new tool for Lexomics called Scrubber, which “scrubs” texts uploaded by researchers to remove extraneous characters, making them easier to analyze. “It’s very different from working on a program that I’d have for class,” he said, “both in that it’s much more labor-intensive and on a far longer scale, but also that I get the satisfaction of having something I built be used by scholars not just here, but in research around the nation.”
Then there’s the place Neal calls his “second home on campus”—the Wheaton Autonomous Learning Laboratory (WHALE), which opened as part of the renovated Science Center. The WHALE Lab offers students space and materials—including one of Neal’s favorite tools, a three-dimensional printer—to create whatever they can come up with.
“Richard is extremely thoughtful about his educational experience and improving that of other students,” said Armstrong, who oversees the lab. “He is committed to hands-on learning inside and outside of the classroom, and growing the community around ‘computational thinking’ at Wheaton.”
Neal said he isn’t sure what he wants to do after he graduates. He might become a high school teacher. He might go to graduate school and eventually become a professor. Or he might go into software engineering, preferably developing technology related to education. Right now he’s focused on next summer, when he’ll take part in The Foundry, a 12-week internship program in Cambridge that Microsoft has created for student developers. “It’s an amazing opportunity,” he said.
Whatever he chooses, Neal said his college experience is giving him the best of both worlds: the broad education provided by the liberal arts along with the resources and support that have helped his programming talent flourish. “Wheaton has really allowed me the autonomy to pursue these choices. I’m very grateful for that,” he said.