March 24th, 2009


in honor of Ada Lovelace

in honor of Ada Lovelace Day 2009 I post to honor a woman in technology.

When I began grad school, I got an RAship from [Advisor] -- also a woman in technology, but that's not the point I'm getting at here. [Advisor] offered me a desk and an initial project, and -- what I didn't even realize was on purpose until many weeks later -- a neighbor, beckyb.

beckyb was finishing her dissertation research (actually, I think she was about where I am now in the process!) and [Advisor] had the thought that we might have things to teach each other. [Advisor] was right, in at least one direction: I learned a tremendous amount from beckyb, including the following insights:

  • Engineering can be about people
  • Playfulness is not opposed to seriousness
  • a spiritual life is compatible with an intellectual life; in fact, they support each other
  • compassion is a skill best learned by modeling
beckyb navigates a very male-dominated academic field (CS and EE) gracefully and with compassion for some of the less-well-trained types (mostly men) who don't handle interpersonal interaction as well as she does, and she is able to share her keen intellectual insight with a subtlety that deftly avoids the far-too-easy pattern of "my-idea-is-better-than-yours" that too many geek circles fall into. Her presence as my mentor -- even when I haven't seen her for months! -- reminds me that research is first and foremost a genuine exercise in curiosity. "What does this do?" "why did it do that?" rather than "who gets credit for this?" or "how can I fix it?".

beckyb is now a professor in the northern Midwest. I am jealous of her students, because they get to see her several days a week, and I don't. She will go on a sabbatical to Brazil next year, where she is visiting her cousin the Buddhist lama and exploring teaching science and engineering to Brazilian women. (I am not making this up; she really is that kind of post-modern Neal Stephenson character.)

(waves at beckyb: happy Ada Lovelace day!)