Like so many great romances, Toni Pence's passion began with a 10-week fling in college.
Then a computer science student at Winthrop University, Pence attended a National Science Foundation summer research program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She knew right away her life had changed.
“That's where I met my first virtual human,” Pence said. “It was love at first sight.”
Hailed as a rising star in her field by peers, Pence, 29, went on to earn a Ph.D. from Clemson University and joined the staff at University of North Carolina Wilmington as an assistant professor in computer science in 2015. Her research and development of virtual environments has the potential to revolutionize the way nurses are trained, and she hopes to implement those innovations right here in Wilmington.
When it comes to career paths for virtual environment experts, video game development is a frequent choice. Pence went through a gaming phase, lengthy sessions blasting aliens in the popular game "Halo" with her high school sweetheart, now husband, Robert Pence, a bona fide human being and software developer himself. But the entertainment industry wasn't on her professional radar.
"Whatever I work on in the computer field, I want it to help," Pence said. "I want to feel like I'm doing good."