19-year-old grad student traveled the globe to UW

She’s only 19 years old, but Nodira Khoussainova already has her bachelor’s degree from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and is a year into the Ph.D. program in computer science and engineering at the UW. Even though her family comes from Uzbekistan and now lives in New Zealand, it has additional ties to the UW. Her father was part of an exchange program between the University of Tashkent and the University of Washington when the Soviet Union still existed.

You discovered an unusual way to finish high school early: You skipped ahead by following your brother to his classes.

I only did that for one summer. Until I was 14, I was in the normal year in high school. Then, during the summer, my brother decided to take some classes. I just went along with him for no particular reason. I thought, “This’ll be fun!”

So when did you graduate from high school?

I didn’t. I jumped into college. They’re not supposed to let you in [to the University of Auckland] unless you’re 16, but one of the people there got involved in my case.

She went through the rule books and found a loophole …. For one year I was doing high school and one class at the university.

You were doing both at the same time?

It’s not as bad as it sounds. I was only taking one class, but since my grades were good enough they admitted me based on that.

Did your father’s career influence your choice to pursue computer science?

No. He’s in theoretical computer science, which is much more mathematical. He actually did his Ph.D. in mathematics; it just happens to be the case that he’s in computer science now. At school I really liked math, but I knew I didn’t want to be a mathematician. It just didn’t sound very appealing to me. Once I started doing computer science, I really enjoyed it.

You came to the U.S. when you were only 17. How did you do that?

I came for an internship at Microsoft Research. That was very lucky, really. I knew I was interested in databases because I had just done a project at school related to it. … I saw [Microsoft researcher] Phil Bernstein’s name—he’s one of the pioneers of databases, which I learned later—and I thought that he looked like an important person. Some of the work he was doing sounded really exciting, so I just went ahead and e-mailed him. I said, “I like the work you’re doing, here’s my background; can we set something up?” … and he responded! I started in 2005. I was 17. Initially they were worried about child labor laws, because under 18 you’re not allowed to work a certain number of hours. It was overwhelming, but fun.

At that time were you thinking of getting a Ph.D.?

I was planning to do it in New Zealand. I had my advisor set up stuff, but once I came here and started working at Microsoft, they said, “You should really consider doing your research here.” … It was three months after the application deadline. People weren’t so happy about that. Luckily, the UW and Cornell decided to consider my application. They don’t normally do that—they probably hated me for it—but they did and both accepted me.

So what made you choose the UW?

It was purely the professors that work here …. I found that I preferred the UW to Cornell, but I still hope to go and work with them at some point …. I’m really happy I chose the UW, not only because it’s strong, but the social environment here is amazing.

Do you keep in touch with Microsoft?

I do. Phil Bernstein is also an affiliate faculty member at the UW, so he was really into my idea of going to the UW. When I finished the internship I said, “I’ll come back after a few years,” because, although the internship was really useful, I still think I could have done a better job …. I feel like I’m just really learning what research is.

Is life pretty lonely for a 19-year-old grad student?

I’ve taken a bunch of IMA classes. I’m taking tae kwon do now …. I’ve made some outside friends that are around my age, some even younger, through IMA classes and things like that. Most of my friends are around 24-25 …. It just seems completely normal to me now.