UA Little Rock grad is taking the Information Technology world by storm

Karen Watts. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

As a sophomore information science major at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2010, Karen Watts of Bryant faced a difficult choice. 

Watts is a single mother of two children with special needs, and the youngest, Gabe, now 11, was in and out of the hospital with health issues.

“I wanted to stay in school, but I couldn’t do both,” Watts said. “I had to leave after my first year at UA Little Rock. I got my cosmetology license, so I could work around my boys’ appointments and schedules.”

Inspired to help other families, Watts opened Artistik Salon, which catered toward children and adults with special needs. The business was even recognized by local broadcast station with a Pay It Forward Award.

“I had people travel from all over the state because they couldn’t go anywhere else to have their children’s hair cut,” Watts said. “A lot of the children have sensory issues, so it could easily be too loud or crowded, so I catered to each child that came in. It was really hard to close in 2017, but I really wanted to finish my degree. It was a really hard decision since I helped a lot of kids.”

Watts returned to UA Little Rock in 2016 and was accepted into the Accelerated BS to MS program, enabling her to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years. In addition, Watts took four graduate classes as a senior. When she graduates from UA Little Rock on Dec. 15, she will earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Science as well as a Graduate Certificate in Data Science.

At UA Little Rock, she is a member of Phi Kappa Phi, an ambassador for the College of Engineering and Information Technology, and a research assistant with the Collaboratorium of Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS), a research group led by Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair and distinguished professor in the Department of Information Science. She credits Agarwal, Dr. Elizabeth Pierce, chair of the Department of Information Science, and all the information science professors with helping her succeed.

“Dr. Elizabeth Pierce and Dr. Nitin Agarwal are my mentors, but every professor I’ve had in information science has been wonderful and supportive. Dr. Pierce supported me going to different hackathons to gain skills and network. It’s been great to continue my research with Dr. Agarwal at COSMOS. It’s a big change from working at a salon.”

As part of her burgeoning hackathon career, Watts and her teammate, Michael DiCicco, beat out 28 other teams as the first place winner of CrimsonHacks in April for their multicurrency cryptocoin wallet called “Tweety Wallet.”

The prototype app retrieves tweets from Twitter with hashtags that correspond to cryptocurrency. The app then runs a sentiment analysis to determine if current views of the digital currency are positive or negative. This information helps users determine if they should buy, sell, or hang on to their digital currency.

In October, she also won the J.B. Hunt Use Case Award at the UA Blockchain Hackathon along with DiCicco and Brenda Nyangweso. Watts and her team, sudoIntellectual, created an electronic bill of lading system for J.B. Hunt that they named “Truck Hunt.” That led the team to travel to J.B. Hunt’s corporate headquarters in Lowell, Arkansas, where they made a presentation to the company’s executives. Watts has received a promising job offer from the company, which would allow her to work with emerging technologies.

“I stay busy, and I don’t sleep a lot,” Watts said of her hectic schedule. “It’s very important for my kids, Blakely, 12, and Gabe, 11. They are my life. Everything I have done is for them. I always knew I wanted to come back and finish my degree. The time came, and I was able to, and I hit the ground running. I’m the first woman in my family to get a college degree.”

Watts has also interned at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service for over a year, where she has completed some innovative information technology projects. She collaborated with her boss, Amy Cole, to develop the Arkansas Extension chatbot platform, VeggieBot, which is likely the first extension chatbot developed in the U.S. A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate conversation with people.

In the case of VeggieBot, the chatbot will answer basic questions about gardening, which will free up time for the employees and provide a self-service channel that can respond at any time. Additionally, Watts created a new internal employee website. She also assisted in developing a new web app, replacing an outdated system, that assists Arkansas rice producers in managing their rice crops for a senior capstone project. She presented this project at the College of Engineering and Information Technology Open House in April and received the Mainstream Technologies Professional Presentation Award.

After completing her master’s degree in December 2019, Watts plans to earn a Ph.D. in computer and information science at UA Little Rock, where she will research strategies to fight disinformation campaigns online using blockchain technology with COSMOS.

“UA Little Rock has given me opportunities to be involved in a research group that opened a whole lot of new doors and helped me decide on my master’s degree,” she said. “The hackathons were another opportunity I wouldn’t have had outside UA Little Rock. I don’t know of any other schools that offer the 4+1 program where I could earn my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in five years and work on my graduate certificate during my senior year. The professors here are incredible and full of knowledge.”

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