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Michael Frederickson Helps Brown CS Students Find Their Passions

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“I’ve never really been interested in technology just for technology’s sake,” explains Brown CS alum Michael Frederickson ‘08, “but rather in using technology to make somebody feel something.” Currently working as a Lead Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios, Michael has indeed dedicated his life to this passion, and he has made an impact on the lives of so many Brown CS students who look to follow this dream.

Michael’s love of the “emotion of awe”, as he calls it, began very early on. “I remember watching Jurassic Park,” he laughs, “and my nine-year-old brain was just completely amazed. The graphics were so awe-inspiring and I knew I wanted to help do that.” This intellectual curiosity and passion naturally led Michael to Brown, where he immediately immersed himself in the computer science department. “There’s always been a conflict for me between the artistic side and the technical side,” he explains, “because technical involves abstraction, and sometimes as an artist you need to forget the structure and explore without following a specific path. I was attracted to Brown as a place where both these modes of exploration and discovery were encouraged, and often blended.” And it was at Brown that Michael really thrived. 

“I remember back in 2003, we had this small capped animation class,” laughs Brown CS Professor Barb Meier, “and Michael showed up to class with three books, and just sat in the center front row of the class as a first-year student. He always had a really good impact on the class, he could work with anybody, had tons of new ideas.” These ideas, this desire to make people feel emotions through art, was what eventually drew Michael to work at Pixar. “Brown and Pixar are both really compatible with who I am. Pixar has always been a place that understands there is deep creativity in technology – that at the deepest levels of technical or artistic sophistication, there isn't much difference between an ‘artist’ and a ‘scientist’.”

But what really makes Michael special is how much he’s given back to the Brown community, even a decade after graduating from the program. Ranging from holding “office-hours” in which he personally guides students on their CS projects, to organizing recruitment trips for Pixar, to giving constructive critiques in Barb’s computer animation class, he has remained personally vested in the lives of so many Brown CS students, and his advice has proven to be invaluable.

What motivates Michael to come back even now? “I suppose some combination of empathy and passion,” he answers. “There’s something about this place that just feels right to me.” As he reminisces about his years as an undergraduate, Michael distinctly remembers the excitement he felt as he ventured into the world of CS. “I remember when Pixar came to recruit when I was a freshman and I just freaked out,” he laughs. “I remember how unthinkably off the map excited I was to get the opportunity to ask questions about that. I remember how good that felt, and I want someone else to get to feel that good. I really just love doing this stuff, and I'm always excited to help out when I see a student with an echo of the passion that got me into graphics in the first place.” 

This desire to help others has always been there for Michael (he was a TA for Barb’s computer animation class for six semesters), and he explains this desire as akin to a movie. “Telling somebody the conclusion has very little impact,” he explains, “but watching a movie puts you through this choreography of emotions over time. I always loved the challenge of teaching as a TA – trying to come up with the right way to explain or the right experience to put different students through to help them come to their own understanding of filmmaking is a really satisfying challenge.” 

Given that Michael has had such a fulfilling and impactful career, what advice would he have for current students who look to follow in his footsteps? “If you’re fortunate enough to have the chance,” he says, “think very hard about what you find yourself wanting to do when no one is watching. Brown is an environment full of intrinsically motivated people. The open curriculum lets you run all these little experiments. ‘Do I like this subject? Am I happy in big groups? Alone? Do I like structure? Improvisation?’ You can use Brown as a little lab to notice what you really love and just can’t stop yourself from doing.” It’s clear that Michael has certainly found his passion, and will undoubtedly help generations of Brown CS students do the same. 

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communications Outreach Specialist Jesse Polhemus.