UCSC engineering students find inspiration in eBay scholarship program

Student interns develop new approaches for online shopping from mobile devices

Inspire scholars
Kristy Brambila, Cassandra Gordon, Enrica Beltran, and Esmeralda Carrillo are sophomore engineering students in the eBay Inspire Scholarship Program. (Photo by C. Lagattuta)

A team of undergraduates from the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz has developed promising new approaches for doing online shopping from mobile devices--promising enough for eBay to file a patent application. The students--Enrica Beltran, Cassandra Gordon, Kristy Brambila, and Esmeralda Carrillo--were interns at eBay last summer as part of the eBay Inspire Scholarship Program, which aims to empower more young women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The students worked on a project aimed at improving the shopping experience for customers using mobile devices. Their success in a Silicon Valley work environment after just one academic year in college is a testament to the value of the Inspire program as well as to the talent of the students. "They came in with a lot of passion and enthusiasm, and I put them in a boot-camp program where they were taught basics of commerce applications and mobile apps," said Neel Sundaresan, senior director and head of eBay Data Research Labs.

With the growth in popularity of smart phones, more people are now researching, comparing, and buying products from their mobile devices instead of on traditional laptop or desktop computers, Sundaresan explained. There are drawbacks to using mobile devices for online shopping, however, despite their convenience. The small screen, for example, can make it hard to navigate a complex shopping process. Also, sessions are often interrupted, and it can be difficult for users to pick up exactly where they left off. These are some of the problems the UCSC students worked to address.

"They have developed new ways for users to easily compare multiple items, such as different products, while using a mobile device. They have also developed new ways to bookmark and save the state of a session using touch-based gestures. These approaches may greatly simplify the complex process of shopping from a mobile device," Sundaresan said.

The internship was a great learning experience for the students. With only one year of engineering school under their belts, they relied heavily on input from their mentors at eBay. "We needed a lot of guidance on the development side, so we went to our mentors a lot for advice and technical guidance," Beltran said. "Everybody was very helpful and excited to work with us--it was really surprising."

At the end of the summer, interns presented their work on posters at a showcase event that was well attended by eBay engineers, managers, and other corporate employees and executives. "We talked with several hundred of our interns about their projects, and this was one of a handful for which we decided that we should proceed with a patent application," said Sandy Godsey, senior director of eBay Legal IP.

"Companies like eBay now have total mobile commerce volume of tens of billions of dollars a year, and tens of millions of mobile users," Sundaresan said. "As more people start to use their mobile devices for browsing and shopping, approaches like those developed by these scholars may be very important."

Sundaresan launched the Inspire Program in 2012, targeting high-achieving students from financially and socially challenged backgrounds. By supporting young women pursuing degrees in STEM fields, the program is helping to develop a larger, more diverse talent pool to drive innovation and new advancements in technology. So far, eight UCSC undergraduates have received scholarships through the Inspire Program. The program also serves students at Indiana University.

According to the UCSC participants, the support system and sense of community the program provides is at least as important as the financial support from the scholarships. "There are not a lot of other women in engineering and computer science, so having a group of friends I can relate to and lean on for support is really important," said Beltran, a sophomore computer science major.

"The scholarship is great, but that's the least of it," agreed Gordon, also a sophomore in computer science. "We learned so much and got to meet a lot of great people at eBay, and we developed a real sense of community with all the people in the Inspire program."

The internship experience gave Gordon a taste of what it's like to work in the Silicon Valley technology industry, and she said it felt like the right place for her to be. "The entire atmosphere is so innovative. I would not mind working there for the rest of my life," she said.