Ecy King doesn’t like to put herself in a box. She does, however, put everything else into nine squares—the late-night conversation she had with her friends, notes for her CS 142 final, absent-minded doodles. The nine squares—drawn on a piece of paper like a large tic-tac-toe board—are called a fractal grid. The center square holds the main topic of the page, and the surrounding squares contain related ideas. It’s a note-taking method invented by her father that she says is now used in university classrooms across his home country, Sierra Leone.
“I’m obsessed with it,” says King, ’23, recently a senior class president and currently a co-terminal master’s student in computer science. “It’s this visual-thinking method that’s really novel.” Fractal grids help King wrangle her thoughts into something cohesive. As a kid growing up in Fresno and Clovis, Calif., she had such a wide range of interests that her parents urged her to quit something. And it wasn’t just tennis, choir, and ukulele. By the time she got to Stanford, she struggled to let go of any of her academic loves: philosophy, math, computer science, English, psychology.
“People knew me as the girl who would pause and be like, ‘Guys, we’re at Stanford!’ I still do that sometimes. Never before had I experienced so much intellectual candy, social candy.”
Scrolling through majors her freshman year, she came across symbolic systems, an interdisciplinary major that incorporated a near-perfect blend of her interests. She studied human-centered artificial intelligence as an undergrad and expects to wrap up her co-term in 2024. But ideally, her career will revolve around those nine squares. “I want to bring fractal grids to the world,” she says. And she’s already begun. Last spring, Stanford University Press printed 500 copies of King’s educational comic book, Bit by Bit, for the computer science department, and recently it signed a contract with King to publish and distribute the book widely in June 2024. A 162-page supplement to Stanford’s introductory CS courses, Bit by Bit features characters representing abstract concepts, and, of course, a fractal grid on nearly every page.
“My interest in philosophy probably came from my dad—we’d have a lot of philosophical conversations at the dinner table. This idea of jumping into a perspective, exploring it but not accepting it, was really interesting to me.
“With math, I liked the ability to explore systems and different ways of doing the same thing. Sometimes I would finish my math homework and then figure out five other ways to solve the same problem. And for English, the ability to play around with words is really fun. I would write these very bad stories and poems. I liked those two parts of my brain being activated.
“Coming from the Central Valley, I could probably count the number of Sierra Leonean people [there] on my fingers, and that was mostly my family. Going to Stanford, all of a sudden I was exposed to the whole [African] diaspora. My ideas on culture—on what is Blackness, what does it mean to be African, what does it mean to be African American—really shifted.
“The characters in Bit by Bit, they’re these embodiments of computer science concepts like debugging or testing your code. When I was writing it, I was deliberately thinking, OK, what are my experiences? And so I’m like, [one character] is going to be this English woman of African descent who’s a bit pompous. Or there’s Mama If, who has this hair wrap—this African auntie stereotype.
“If I can represent myself and the diversity of experiences I’ve had, that can serve as a form of representation.”
Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at email@example.com.