CCIS Dean’s Own Path Spurs Drive to Increase Student Opportunities

Originally Posted on News@Northeastern

Brodley is the dean of the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and her career path would likely have been quite dif­ferent had she not seized the moment and taken this very same advice in col­lege. During her sopho­more year at McGill Uni­ver­sity, a friend sug­gested she would enjoy a pro­gram­ming course. That course inspired her to change her major from eco­nomics to a double major in math and com­puter sci­ence. “I fell head over heels in love with it,” Brodley recalls.

The Obama admin­is­tra­tion has high­lighted the impor­tance of increasing par­tic­i­pa­tion of women and under­rep­re­sented groups in STEM fields, and described com­puter sci­ence in par­tic­ular as a “basic req­ui­site for 21st-century jobs.” In a Feb­ruary 2016 fact­sheet the White House pointed to eco­nomic pro­jec­tions that indi­cate there will be 2.4 mil­lion unfilled STEM jobs by 2018, and that diver­sity chal­lenges com­pound this employ­ment gap; women and minori­ties com­prise 70 per­cent of col­lege stu­dents but less than 45 per­cent of STEM degrees.

A hall­mark of her career

Leading efforts to increase oppor­tu­ni­ties for students—particularly women and under­rep­re­sented groups—to pursue degrees in com­puter sci­ence and STEM fields has been a hall­mark of Brodley’s career. She spent a decade, including three years as co-chair, on the Com­puting Research Association’s Com­mittee on the Status of Women, whose work focuses on increasing par­tic­i­pa­tion of women across the research pipeline and fos­tering their growth to become leaders in industry and academia.

At North­eastern there is a growing interest in STEM fields among women, par­tic­u­larly in CCIS where applications for fall 2016 increased 18 per­cent overall and 33 per­cent among female students.

Brodley has led the devel­op­ment of a master’s degree in com­puter sci­ence through ALIGN, a pro­gram that offers master’s degrees in tracks designed for pro­fes­sionals who want to tran­si­tion into high-growth indus­tries such as com­puter sci­ence and other STEM fields. She has also over­seen the devel­op­ment of the CCIS Mean­ingful Minors pro­gram—which allows stu­dents to per­son­alize a minor in com­puter or infor­ma­tion sci­ence to match their indi­vidual aca­d­emic needs and interests—as well as highly inter­dis­ci­pli­nary bachelor’s and master’s degree pro­grams in data science.

The college’s Fun­da­men­tals of Com­puter Sci­ence intro course is struc­tured to intro­duce novice pro­gram­mers to the sys­tem­atic and explicit design of pro­grams and, at the same time, expose stu­dents with prior pro­gram­ming expe­ri­ence to design. As Brodley notes, prior pro­gram­ming expe­ri­ence does not auto­mat­i­cally cor­re­late with aca­d­emic suc­cess because the step-by-step require­ments for explicit design can easily be fol­lowed by novices and many stu­dents with prior expe­ri­ence are unac­cus­tomed to sys­tem­atic design. All stu­dents begin the pro­gram with the same intro­duc­tory course sequence, she says, thus removing bar­riers to entry for stu­dents without prior experience.

Career achieve­ments honored

On Tuesday, Brodley will be hon­ored at a National Center for Women and Infor­ma­tion Tech­nology summit with the NCWIT Har­rold and Notkin Research and Grad­uate Men­toring Award.

Brodley says she per­son­ally knew both Mary Jean Har­rold and David Notkin, who she described as fan­tastic researchers and advo­cates for their stu­dents. “I’m hon­ored to be receiving this award,” Brodley says.

The award rec­og­nizes fac­ulty mem­bers who com­bine out­standing research accom­plish­ments with excel­lence in grad­uate men­toring, as well as those who advo­cate for recruiting, encour­aging, and pro­moting women and minori­ties in com­puting fields at both a local and national level.

Brodley’s research schol­ar­ship is in machine learning and data mining, and she is a fellow of the Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence. Her inter­dis­ci­pli­nary machine learning research has led to advances not only in com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, but in many other areas including remote sensing, neu­ro­science, dig­ital libraries, and astrophysics.

Why men­tors matter

Brodley views men­tor­ship as a crit­ical part of her career, as well. She learned how to mentor from her own mentor, Paul E. Utgoff, a com­puter sci­ence pro­fessor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst. He died of cancer in 2008.

I had the most won­derful mentor,” Brodley said of Utgoff, whose voice she says she can still hear in her head when she writes, remem­bering the way he would ask ques­tions meant to improve her writing. “He was able to mentor me in a way where instead of having the ideas for me in my research, he could lead me to the place where I could have the ideas for myself. That’s hard to do, and I’ve tried to emu­late this. I’ve always wanted to make sure my grad stu­dents felt like they could not just do research but they could lead research.”

She adds, “There’s a par­tic­ular way in which you can mentor in order to get stu­dents to really take own­er­ship of their own research, and not look to you for the ideas.”