From professional dancer to software developer, Northeastern Vancouver student makes fascinating career pivot

Katie Lowen, a modern dance artist turned software developer, will be graduating from Northeastern University Vancouver with an Align Master of Science in Computer Science degree in spring 2023. Photos by Kezia Nathe/Courtesy of Katie Lowen

When Katie Lowen, a master’s degree candidate at Northeastern University Vancouver, applied for the computer science program she didn’t have a clear understanding of what this career choice would entail.

“I went into that program never seeing a line of code, completely blind,” she says. “I don’t know what made me apply for it.” 

However, Lowen, 29, is not a stranger to unconventional career changes and ambitious undertakings. In high school, she traded off a future in professional gymnastics for a chance to play basketball and was able to get good enough in three years to secure a basketball scholarship to Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. As she was finishing up her undergraduate degree in finance, Lowen decided to try herself in modern dance and got into a professional dancing program after training with tutors for a year. 

Lowen says that being from a small city in southern Alberta, she might have been naive about the scope of what she was taking on, but that it helped her achieve her dreams.

“What I learned from gymnastics, but also doing sports in general,” she says, “ [is] that I’m somebody who can put my head down and train and learn. I know how to train my brain to make that shift.”

Although it is terrifying and incredibly stressful, Lowen says she knows that she will eventually master whatever she wants to learn.

“I’ve been really lucky in terms of meeting people who are excited about somebody new coming into the scene,” she says.

While in dance school, Lowen was able to get an apprenticeship with Radical System Art dance company that fuses dance, theater and martial arts in its shows. She first stepped into substituting for another dancer in an existing show and later became a full-time member of the troupe, performing and touring throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe as well as Israel.

Another successful but unusual creative undertaking Lowen was a part of was an underground dance space in an old semi-trailer in Vancouver called Boombox. Lowen and her two best friends found the old semi-trailer, which required an “insane” amount of work, on Craigslist available for rent. They converted it into a space for dance practices and performances. 

“All of us were young and crazy enough to say ‘Yes, this is possible,’” Lowen says.

The 53-foot-long trailer had low seating capacity (up to 35 people), lacked electricity (they used a power generator), and featured basic sound and lights systems. Despite the site’s limitations, Boombox went on to host more than 50 emerging and established artists from different disciplines presenting in the space and a youth residency. 

A person wearing a red jumpsuit is sitting on the pavement in the sunlight.
Katie Lowen, a modern dance artist and a master’s degree candidate at Northeastern University Vancouver. Photo by Kezia Nathe/Courtesy of Katie Lowen

“It felt so immersive just because of the nature of the space,” Lowen says. “It was very much a space for artists to come in and start something new right from the beginning because it has to be built in that space to facilitate the viewership because it’s so specific.” 

Lowen decided to go back to school in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theaters and performance work. She wanted to gain some technical skills by taking advantage of interdisciplinary grants available in Canada, and bring technology to Boombox and the dancing scene. 

She found Northeastern University Vancouver through a Google search and applied on a whim not thinking she would get in. In September 2020, she started her journey in computer science.

When live performances resumed, Lowen tried to combine studies with rehearsals for the dance company, but soon realized that it wouldn’t work for her.

“It is ensemble work. And it’s very physical with a lot of flipping and a lot of very close proximity, and really fast,” she says. “So for that you can’t be missing rehearsals for everybody to be safe on stage.”

It was hard to do five-hour rehearsals and retain a lot of choreography, as her brain was already overloaded with new information she was learning at school, Lowen says. 

“There is something amazing about being dependent on your body’s health and skill as your source of income,” Lowen says. “But then there is also something that is really scary about it, especially as you get older, because you start to feel the weight of that get heavier and also you get injured a lot more.” 

Although she believed she could still dance for another five years, she was also already so invested in the master’s program that she chose to stop dancing. In July 2021, Lowen performed for the last time.

Lowen is among the first cohort of students pursuing an Align master of science in computer science degree at Northeastern’s Vancouver campus. Since she started, the school has moved to a new “glorious” campus in a unique, newly built Deloitte Summit tower downtown.

“It is really exciting to see the school itself and the community grow,” Lowen says, noting that her cohort is very close.  

She says the computer science program has been a lot of hard work.

“I really invested my whole being into making sure that I put as much into it as I wanted to get out of it,” Lowen says.

The first couple of people from her cohort graduated in spring 2022. Lowen is hoping to follow in their footsteps and graduate in May 2023. 

By virtue of Northeastern’s experiential model of learning, Lowen was able to do a four-month internship at Unity Software Inc. This internship led her to secure a full-time job as a data developer at Unity’s subsidiary, Ziva Dynamics—a Vancouver-based software company that specializes in human simulation and real-time virtual character creation for movies, TV, retail experiences and interactive environments.

“It is actually really cool because it is this intersection point of arts and tech in a totally different way than I thought it was going to be,” Lowen says. “It is a great entry point.”

She says she is done with “midlife crisis career changes.” 

“I think my biggest takeaway is that every experience that I’ve had leading up to this point, even though they seem so different, has all sort of come together,” Lowen says. “There isn’t really any wasted experience in that way.”

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