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Computer science changed UNM grad’s tune on a career

May 18, 2022

Brendan Mulkern’s background would suggest that he was on track to play in a philharmonic. Instead, he is starting a full-time position as a software engineer at Sandia National Laboratories.

photo: Brendan Mulkern
Brendan Mulkern

Mulkern earned a master’s degree in computer science from The University of New Mexico this month. It is the second degree he is earning from UNM, the first being a bachelor’s degree in music in 2017, studying with John Marchiando.

Mulkern studied the trumpet, playing in the band in high school at El Dorado. His father is an electrical engineer who works at Sandia, so he grew up around technology. He also had a love for physics.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do in high school, so since I liked both, I double majored in music and physics,” he said.

But since both music and science are all-consuming, it soon became apparent that he would have to make a choice.

“My dream job was to play in an orchestra, and I wanted to devote more time to music,” he said. “I felt more drawn to music at the time.”

While a student, Mulkern played with the Albuquerque Symphony Orchestra, then after graduation, took off for the Midwest to further study trumpet at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, which is considered one of the best music schools in the country, where he earned a master’s degree in 2019.

He was all set to return to New Mexico (although he was born in Minnesota, Mulkern said he didn’t like the cold, cloudy winters of the Midwest and lack of mountains) to begin his professional music career when he started to have a change of heart.

“I wasn’t used to the audition lifestyle,” Mulkern said. “You have to pay for flights, take trips and face a lot of financial uncertainty. By then, I was engaged, and while the schedule non-regularity appealed to me when I was younger, I later felt that a regular schedule was more appealing.”

He wasn’t sure exactly what his options were but knew that he wanted something that was creative. Since he had a technical background, including having taken core classes like calculus, he began looking into becoming a software engineer.

Mulkern emailed Lynn Connor, an academic adviser in the Department of Computer Science, then was connected with Shuang Luan, a professor of computer science. Mulkern met with Luan, liked what he heard, then signed up for classes.

“I met with him and felt like it was something that would be doable,” he said. “It’s such a broad degree that you can do a lot with.”

Luan said he is impressed with what Mulkern has accomplished and has been using him as an example to encourage other students who are considering switching into computer science.

“I still remember when he came to my office hours and asked for my advice about how to change to computer science,” Luan said. “Music is as far from computer science and engineering as possible, so I recommended Brendan take some core undergraduate classes before applying to the MS program. I have been telling everyone that if a musician can do it, everyone else can do it!”

Mulkern began classes the same semester as the pandemic hit in 2020, which did not hold him back one bit.

“I had about eight weeks of classes before everything went online,” Mulkern said. “Computer science was fairly easy to transfer online, and plus all musical performances had been put on hold, so it was great timing.”

Mulkern said he will always love music (and occasionally still plays trumpet in performances) but is happy that he made the switch to coding. He feels his music background is a plus.

“Coding is becoming a more important skill, and it’s helpful to have people with different perspectives in the profession,” he said. “Although the idea of switching into a new field is intimidating, with computer science, you can gain skills fairly quickly and have a clear path forward.”

Those interested in pursuing a computer science degree (or any other degree in the School of Engineering) can contact an academic advisor in their area of interest.