Women In Computer Science

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Missy Cummings with quadcopter

In the public eye, computer scientists are often portrayed as dry, secluded – and almost always male. But behind the outdated stereotype, the lab is full of real world applications, exciting collaborations, and researchers of both genders who are working hard to advance the state of the field. For this profile piece, we take a closer look at the work and paths of some prominent female researchers.

Professor Missy Cummings took a refreshingly unorthodox route to academia. With an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a masters in space systems engineering, she spent eleven years in the United States Navy – during which time she became one of the first female fighter pilots in the organization. When she realized that unmanned vehicles were the next logical step for her area of work, Cummings went back to school for a PhD in systems engineering and now works in the areas of automated systems and human-computer interaction. Through her work, she and her research group hope to reduce the dependence on human control for complex systems, freeing the cognitive capabilities of the operator to focus on sophisticated strategy and planning the mission at hand. It’s a big shift from the present status quo, in which people train for years to be pilots; Cummings has encountered a fair amount of cultural resistance for her ideas. But her career has never shied away from rocking the boat. When asked what she feels enabled her to achieve the success that she has, she teases, “I tell them it’s because I learned to land a plane on an aircraft carrier all by myself when I was young” – but moving into a more serious vein, says that she credits the professional leadership training and self-advocacy skills she learned during her time in the military. Professor Cummings points out, fairly, that in many ways academia needs to improve not just on teaching students hard skills in their field, but soft skills of how to target goals and work productively and positively in order to achieve them. In her view, the most important piece of the puzzle for students of both genders is picking good advisors and working closely with them to create as solid a foundation as possible – and she leads by example. Her students are deliberately exposed to opportunities, from grant management to public speaking, that prepare them not only to compete but to succeed. And in many ways, the confidence that she has in her abilities, and with which she imbues her students in their own, provides them with almost everything they need in order to thrive. Daniela Rus is another professor who benefited as a student from the guidance of a far-sighted mentor. A lifelong high achiever in mathematics, during her undergraduate career computer science seemed like the way to seek practical application from the discipline. Towards the end of that period of study, Rus met John Hopcroft, who believed that robotics was the grand application of computer science. She agreed, and earned her PhD in robotics working under him at Cornell. Immediately after graduating, she began to work in information capture and access, and the two fields have been a recurrent theme in her research projects ever since. Recently those projects have centered around the general theme of environmental robotics, tackling problems from how to build reliable flying robots equipped with cameras (currently being tested to aid whale researchers in their observation of migration and behavior) to the challenge of taking true color photographs in water. With each of her projects, Professor Rus strives to deliver a new computational capability. The applications used to test those are often both unexpected and far-reaching, from robots who tend gardens to a device that herds free-range cattle. In the course of her travels, she has become a leader in spearheading technological outreach programs for underserved populations. Beginning with Fiji, where her underwater robotics research is constructed, Rus has worked with CSAIL’s Imara program to develop a Ubuntu-based educational program in order to work towards bridging the digital divide. On the subject of other divides, such as the perceived gender barrier to computer science, she is circumspect. While acknowledging that there are certainly challenges and pressures – societal as well as institutional – that are different for women in the field, at the end of the day what makes a difference regardless of gender is early exposure and a sincere love of the work. “Ultimately I think people follow their passions – so what’s important is making sure that girls have a background that allows them to get passionate about problems in this field.”

Brain imaging

Professor Polina Golland is a researcher who has no shortage of passion for her field. Focusing primarily on medical image analysis, she is working to construct models capable of analyzing information not as signals, but as shapes – representing a huge shift in classical computer processing. The work has applications in a variety of areas in medical imaging. One notable example is the brain. From unraveling the relationship between anatomy and function to accurately predicting the location of areas responsive to a particular visual stimulus, there is still so much that researchers do not know about its function that the organ is rich with possibility. Her group’s work with cardiac imaging, on the other hand, has more direct clinical application: modeling completion and effectiveness in a procedure to correct atrial fibrillation. When it comes to the issue of being a woman in a field largely dominated by men, Golland feels fortunate for the barriers that were broken down by others who went before her. In addition to all her research accomplishments, Golland is a new mother of one. She stresses that there was never a decision between a family and a thriving career, and jokingly attributes this duality to the nature of those who succeed in academia. “My kitchen theory about this is that you get a bunch of professors who are convinced they’re right, and then they decide that they can do all of it! And who’s going to stop them?” During Professor Nancy Lynch’s early days at MIT, these thorny issues were just beginning to be tackled by the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS). Having graduated with a PhD in mathematics in the early seventies, she returned to the Institute as a professor in 1981. At that time, active steps were being taken to begin dismantling entry-level barriers to courses in computer science – assuming that students already had a familiarity with programming, for example. But for her own career, Lynch’s mathematical background provided her with the ideal foundation to work in distributed computing theory. Her research, at its simplest, deals with many computers cooperating to solve a problem. The applications are spread across almost every area of our modern daily lives, including wireless networks, data storage, and multiprocessor programming. In recent years, the field has expanded to include interactions between computers and the physical world, requiring models to incorporate both the predictable behavior of machines and the markedly less predictable behavior of variables and entities around them. To her way of thinking, the way to draw students into the discipline of computer science is with hands on work that dispels any dusty notions of endless labor in front of an inert box with no connection to the world around it. With respect to those perceived limitations, she says, “It’s wide open now to work on applications. A lot of people in computer science are really halfway computer scientists and halfway applications people. Once you get into it, you’re not just sitting at a terminal. You’re thinking about the ideas of the field.” Professor Barbara Liskov is, in a way, one of the original female pioneers of computer science. After becoming the first woman in the United States to earn a PhD in computer science, she has gone on to win numerous awards and honors. The most notable of these was the A.M. Turing Award in 2008 – often referred to as the Nobel Prize of computer science. And yet her path in the field began by chance. After completing an undergraduate degree in mathematics, Liskov decided to work for a while before deciding whether or not to go to graduate school. But the most interesting positions were in computer programming, rather than math. She discovered a skill in the discipline, and by the time she went back to school, her chosen field was computer science. Her work has varied widely, encompassing many significant accomplishments in the areas of abstraction, fault tolerance and distributed computing. Liskov is also the associate provost for faculty equity at MIT, working to provide equitable representation of women and underserved minorities at the Institute. She is aware that there are systematic issues in the educational pipeline that no college can begin to solve on its own, noting that “the real problem in computer science is that young women aren’t going into the field for societal reasons.” With that in mind, her hope once students arrive is that they will be supported and encouraged in their interests, and perhaps try a field in which they would never have envisioned themselves before. There are as many paths into a discipline as there are researchers who follow them, and it is often the unexpected spark of interest that leads to a fruitful and storied career. The example of these five researchers, then, allows only the following conclusion to be drawn. At the end of the day, it is those who pursue their callings in any field who will be successful, refusing to be dissuaded by pressures real or imagined. Daniela Rus had this to say about forging one’s own trail in work and life: “I think that if you are passionate and motivated and driven, you will not let reality interfere – and you will find a way to get to where you want to go.”

February 18, 2010
Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, CSAIL