Friday, October 07, 2011

channeling ada: maria klawe, computer science cheerleader, champion, and sage

It is Ada Lovelace Day once again, the day on which bloggers around the world write about inspiring women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. Ada Lovelace Day has become a wonderful tradition, and I’ve been proud to participate for all three years of its existence. (If you care to step into my DeLorean, you’ll find my ALD posts from 2009 and 2010.) This year, I will begin with a little drama...

This past April at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan, I attended the reading of a most impressive opera titled, simply, ADA. Written by Kim Sherman and Margaret Vandenburg, it depicts the brief, wondrous, but also tortured life of Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Ada Lovelace is considered by many to have been the first computer programmer for her ideas concerning early calculating machines. She was born in 1815 to parents whose tumultuous marriage was fractured by irreconcilably disparate worldviews: her father, the poet Lord Byron, was a free-spirited dreamer whose livelihood involved dancing with words, while her mother, Anna Milbanke, was stoic, rational, and much more interested in practical pursuits like science and mathematics. Based in large part on historical events, the opera follows young Ada as she struggles with the clash between her mother’s insistence on strict dedication to academic studies and the flights of fancy she’s clearly inherited from the father she would never meet.

As much as I appreciated the opera's focus on Ada's internal conflicts, I thought the work shed fascinating light on Ada’s mother, who in real life was both remarkably talented and burdened in her own right. Unlike most girls in 18th-century England, Anna Milbanke was introduced to academics at a young age. She was raised as a boy of privilege would have been, with private tutors who immersed the young Anna in lessons of philosophy, science, literature, and—her favorite—mathematics. These lessons helped her blossom into an intelligent young woman and would color her personality for the rest of her days; even her future husband would one day come to call her “Princess of Parallelograms.”

Years later, though, when the Don Juan author began acting out and Lady Byron ultimately asked for divorce, things began to take a turn for the worse. In raising the couple’s daughter alone, Lady Byron feared her former husband’s wild influence so much that she became unwavering in—one might say obsessed with—her goal of steering Ada into scholarly work. In the dramatized version of events, although Ada displayed immense scholastic aptitude and an innate curiosity about a great many things—most notably, in the ability of machines to one day perform unimaginably complex algorithms—she suffered irrevocably from the stifling condemnation of her true passions by her mother and by society at large. In the end, we’re led to conclude that if her mother had been different, had not only wanted for her daughter to appreciate the magic of math and science but also the creativity and whimsy that shows up in everyday life, then Lovelace may not have died, broken, at the age of 36.

Whether this version of events bears any resemblance to the actual reasons for Lovelace’s fall from grace and ultimate premature demise is anyone’s guess. (For the record, her proximate causes of death were uterine cancer and bloodletting, though by the end of her life she clearly suffered mentally as well, as she had become addicted to painkillers and gambling.) Yet in pondering how things might have turned out differently, one can't help but wonder whether being nurtured by someone else, the Enchantress of Numbers might have been saved . . .

* * *

Most people outside the computing world have probably never heard of Maria Klawe. To briefly summarize, Klawe (pronounced CLAW-vey) is the current president of Harvey Mudd College, an accomplished computer scientist, and an overall inspiring human being. I decided to profile her this year for her enormous contributions to technology, not only in her own research, but in her steadfast dedication to the cultivation of aspiring computer scientists—especially those who are women.

Klawe’s biography reads like a laundry list of gold star achievements. A native of Canada, she received a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Alberta before launching a career that has spanned both industry and academia. During eight years at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA, Klawe rose to the rank of department chair before moving on to the University of British Columbia, where she spent 15 years building up the computer science department and serving as its head. She was eventually wooed by Princeton, and in 2003 she relocated to New Jersey to become a rock star dean of the university's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Three years later, Klawe accepted an offer from Harvey Mudd, a small university in Claremont, CA that specializes in the STEM areas, to become its first female president. In 2009, she was invited to serve on the board of directors at Microsoft, becoming only the second woman to do so. Not too shabby a CV, eh?

Truth is, though, it’s the little things about Klawe’s studies, passions, and overall attitude that have really impressed the dickens out of me. Her research has focused on some interesting problems in computational geometry, like the so-called art gallery problem, which aims to determine the minimum number of guards needed to observe an entire gallery with a set architecture. She’s also spent a lot of time studying how gender plays a role in video game performance and development. In a paper from 1995, for instance, she concluded that when girls play a video game together, they do significantly better than if they play apart.

That idea mirrors one that’s gotten a heavy share of attention in the blogosphere recently; namely, that one of the reasons women shy away from computer science is its reputation for being über competitive. I was surprised to learn that back in the 1960s and 70s, the percentage of CS majors in the U.S. who were women was much higher than it is now—it peaked at about 30 percent. But the following decades brought a shift in attitude toward computing as a career, and today only about 15 percent of all CS majors in the U.S. are female. To challenge this paradigm, Klawe and her colleagues have attempted to morph the prevailing computer science culture into one that fosters support and inclusion, especially for women who may simply need a little nudge to help their talent shine through. “The imposter syndrome is something that many people suffer from, [but] it’s persistence and hard work that will make the difference,” she said in a recent interview. “If you just keep pushing on it and get encouragement and help from others, you’re going to do just fine.” Their efforts seem to be paying off in spades: Since Klawe’s tenure at Harvey Mudd began, the percentage of female computer science majors there has more than tripled, to 42 percent.

So how does she do it? By all accounts Klawe is warm, energetic, and enthusiastic about just about everything and everyone she encounters, and she strives to bring harmony and creativity into each endeavor she undertakes. Case in point: she loves to paint watercolors, and she’s been known to whip out her brushes during meetings to help her focus on the discussion at hand. She’s also encouraged young children to explore mathematics with hands-on activities that demonstrate the wonders of math in ways not often taught in schools. "The thing that scares me the most is that we would think it was amazingly bad for an educated person to not be able to read, but for some reason we think it's okay for an educated person to say, 'I'm not good at math,'" Klawe has said. "I really want our culture to value having our students learning math and science in high school and continuing [the subjects] in college."

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Klawe’s penchant for skateboarding around campus, which is totally awesome! When I first saw the photo of her goofy-footing it with black helmet, fuscia jacket, and multicolored kicks, I knew I had to find out about this woman. Turns out, it’s not just a hobby; Klawe’s boarding doubles as a way to get students to feel comfortable approaching her and opening up about their lives and their passions. How rad is that?!

Indeed, throughout her life, Klawe has—not unlike the mother of a certain historical computing visionary—encouraged youngsters, and women in particular, to be independent thinkers; to seek out solutions to problems that don’t have easy answers. But she also espouses something that Lady Byron apparently did not: an attitude that attending to the whole person is a huge part of education, and that young learners shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves, to embrace their passions, be they in the classroom, the art room, a ballfield or stage. I’m eternally grateful for Maria Klawe’s spirit and efforts to make science and math more appealing to students of all backgrounds. In that, she truly epitomizes the many heroines of Ada Lovelace Day.

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