Brooke Hopkins: Computer Scientist, Designer, Activist

The full auditorium falls silent as Brooke Hopkins begins her talk at the 2017 TEDx conference hosted by New York University Abu Dhabi. Who knew that an American girl born and raised in Wisconsin would be standing onstage in the United Arab Emirates to deliver a speech about the technology industry’s growing divide between those who use technology and those who create technology – at the age of 21?

Now 22, Hopkins is wrapping up the final semester of her computer science and math studies at NYUAD.

“I was slightly brainwashed by my father [who also studied computer science] so I studied computer science,” says Hopkins about choosing her educational and career track.  

Hopkins was born to entrepreneur parents. Her father has started and sold five software companies, some related to healthcare, and her mother has her own toy business. “When I was little [my mom] would say ‘If you’re really good today, you can go down and pick out a toy,’” she reminisces [of her childhood].

Hopkins begins her TEDx speech by taking her audience back to the day that would shape the course of her studies and career. “I distinctly remember the day my dad brought home the first iPhone. This was probably my first memory of being enamored with a piece of technology.” Close to graduating from college, Hopkins has hit milestones across the globe, such as teaching computer science to refugees in Germany and securing a job with Google in California, that are impressive not only for her age but also in the world of computer science as a whole.

“I think that so much of computer science has shaped a lot of the ways I think about the world and think about problems,” Hopkins says about the importance and applicability of computer science in life. “Algorithmic thinking or purposefully thinking about your process of solving a problem or your process of getting to a solution and optimizing that is a really good skill for life in general. I really value the optimization of computer science.” She also adds that computer science also affirms that “you can just do it for yourself and built it yourself.”

Having spent a couple of summers in Jordan in her high school years, Hopkins combined her passion for computer science and the Middle East by applying to and studying at the highly selective NYUAD. During her junior year she helped start Empowering Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at NYUAD, which is also the only program of its kind in the UAE. As a feminist, Hopkins feels that the program is a step towards encouraging equality in the workplace and creating opportunities for women in STEM. She points out that the UAE’s intimate social circle allows for the program to have an impact and play a substantial role in a way that it would not have been able to in the US or other countries where many similar programs exist simultaneously.

Hopkins adds that weSTEM NYUAD’s entrepreneurial nature means getting to start many projects and being the first to pave the way in the UAE, which she says is a very relevant country in the Middle East and globally that is on the path to being an influential country in technology and diplomacy. “To be able to have access and be part of that change is cool,” she says.

Hopkins spent the summer of 2016 in Berlin, Germany interning for the first time, exploring her interest in technology and art at a design and art studio called ART+COM. But her initial summer plans took a life-changing turn when she reached out to various non-governmental organizations hoping to contribute her computer science knowledge to the rising refugee crisis. Hopkins created and taught a 14-week long curriculum for programming courses for asylum-seeking and refugee women as well as local German women in Berlin. She said that the combination of asylum-seeking and local women in the same class proves that computer science education is valuable no matter the life situation. “It’s good to be able to prove that [learning computer science] is something worthwhile beyond the fact that [the refugee women] have time to do it,” she says.

A year later, Hopkins landed an enviable internship at Google in Mountain View, California with the Google Assistant team. “On the first day at Google they introduce you to the code repository [that has] all their code in it and you can look at any line of code that you want to, which is so mind blowing to me. It was this moment where I was like ‘Woah.”

Hopkins was especially amazed at the amount of highly-experienced and niched people at Google who she could meet randomly while at the cafeteria.

“I was so convinced that I was not going to [go] back [to Google] because there are so many other really smart interns and I assumed that you had to be better than the other interns. So I was like ‘Fuck, I’ll never come back.’” Nonetheless, Hopkins will be returning to Google as a full-time employee, this time in San Francisco as part of Bebop, which is an acquired company that create enterprise solutions for medium to large companies. Because Google kept Bebop as a startup of its own rather than swallowing the company completely under the Google name, she says she will experience being part of the startup culture and a small team but also experience the perks of Google such as support and being able to transfer to any other team at Google in the future.

Thinking about the future, Hopkins says that Google is “a sweet place as a new grad” but that eventually she would like to follow in her father’s footsteps and start her own projects. She adds that her wish to work for herself is also heavily influenced by her role in weSTEM NYUAD. “It’s really fun to start something and do things that aren’t necessarily paid and also you have to take a lot of risks as well, and it’s just kind of thrilling in a way that I think working for someone else isn’t necessarily,” she says. “I’d do it some area that I care about as well probably.”

But for now, Hopkins is working hard on her latest endeavor, her capstone project to end her studies. She is delving into security for implantable medical devices such as implantable cardiac monitors and insulin pumps. She is also looking forward to the few months of freedom between graduation and stepping into the working world. “I’m super undecided between a bunch of different things,” she says with excitement about her plans for the summer. She weighs her options of learning computer science related things she did not while in school, starting a business in the UAE with her best friend, learning Czech and Slovak because of her Slovak boyfriend, traveling, printmaking and leather crafting.

“I made this myself,” Hopkins says, proudly holding up the triangle-shaped leather pendant hanging around her neck.

Photos by Courtesy of TEDx NYUAD.