Computing Research News

January 2010     Vol. 22/No. 1

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CRA-W Showcases Its Programs at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

By Joann J. Ordille

On September 30, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing opened at the J.W. Marriott Conference Center in Tucson. The sold-out crowd totaled 1,570 women and men including 520 industry and government professionals, 213 academic faculty and staff, and 678 students. The conference attracted globe-spanning participation with attendees from 22 countries and all continents except Antarctica. You could see leaders from Africa, educators, executives from popular technology companies, students, prominent researchers, presidents of universities, and social change agents in excited conversation. Combining excitement and fun with learning and mentoring is one of the best ways to strengthen the computer science pipeline.

The Computing Research Association Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W) is a founding sponsor of the Grace Hopper Conference, and has participated in every conference from the very first. This year, CRA-W expanded its participation and leveraged its long history of successful programs to contribute to two important new conference programs:  the Robotics Track and the CRA-W Mentoring Workshops. CRA-W also launched a new effort at the conference to help undergraduates build and execute a strategy for applying to graduate school.

CRA-W Board Members participated in a variety of conference leadership positions. CRA-W Board Member, Professor Tracy Camp of the Colorado School of Mines, was this year's Program Chair and will be General Chair in 2010. CRA-W Board Member and Past Co-Chair, Professor Lori Pollock of the University of Delaware, will be Program Co-Chair.  

Grace Hopper 2009 included keynotes from leaders of research and industry, the special research track on robotics, a session with technology executives on how to join their ranks, technical papers by graduate students and recent PhDs, a student poster session, special talks on using computer technology to ignite social change, and a variety of sessions on technology, research results, career skills, and expanding participation in the computer science pipeline.

The Robotics Track was inspired, in part, by the success of the Discipline-specific Mentoring Workshops (http://www.cra-w.org/cdc) sponsored by CRA-W and CDC, the Coalition to Diversify Computing (http://www.cdc-computing.org/). These workshops bring senior researchers in an area together with beginning researchers from underrepresented groups to help mentor the new researchers into the senior researchers of tomorrow. Funding for this year's Robotics Track was provided by CRA-W and CDC programs. The track was led by CRA-W Board Members Professor Maria Gini of the University of Minnesota and Professor Manuela Veloso of Carnegie Mellon.

The Robotics Track included talks on "Engineering and Self-Organizing Systems," by Professor Radhika Nagpal of Harvard; "Living Better with Robotics," by Professor Cynthia Breazeal of MIT; and "Challenges and Results of Multi-Robot and Multi-Human Systems" by Professor Manuela Veloso. Participants discussed how the life of insects can inspire better robot design, how robots can be made invisible to help people in everyday tasks, and how symbiotic relationships of robots and humans can achieve even better results. The track also included a panel on "Career Paths in Robotics" chaired by Professor Gini and including panelists Dr. Sonia Chernova of MIT, Dr. Ashley Stroupe of JPL, and Dr. Kristen Stubbs of iRobot.

Also new to the conference this year were three CRA-W Career Mentoring Workshops which received an enthusiastic, packed-house reception from conference attendees. The workshops, sponsored by CRA-W and the Henry Luce Foundation, addressed the needs of undergraduates, graduate students and early career researchers, respectively, in advancing to the next stage of their careers. The workshops were organized by Dr. Joann Ordille of Avaya Labs Research.

The undergraduate workshop included sessions that moved from why a student might consider, and even be excited by, a career in computer science, to how to prepare for and apply to graduate school, and to what life is like once there. One student commented that she was inspired by the world of possible jobs and specialties described by Professor Soha Hassoun of Tufts and Dr. Tessa Lau of IBM Almaden Research Center.

Professor Jodi Tims of Baldwin-Wallace College and PhD Candidate Shannon Steinfadt of Kent State caused a rush of sign-ups to another CRA-W program that provided one-on-one advising sessions on applying to graduate school. As one student commented:  “There is more to applying to graduate school than meets the eye.” In the advising sessions, students learn to position themselves as beginning researchers and to match their interests and talents to academic programs.

The emphasis on positioning a student as a researcher on their graduate school application naturally leads students to be interested in several CRA-W and CDC programs that provide research experience for undergraduates (http://www.craw.org/UgradResearch).  Work by undergraduates in these programs was presented in eight posters during the conference. The posters covered such wide-ranging topics as the computation of RNA structures, reduction of energy consumption, rapid prototyping, and social network privacy.

In the final undergraduate session, Professor Eleni Stroulia (University of Alberta), Professor Andrea Danyluk (Williams College), and PhD Candidate Ramya Raghavendra (UC Santa Barbara), both entertained and informed with stories of overcoming the hurdles and reaping the rewards of graduate school.

The undergraduate workshop expanded on the CRA-W and CDC Distinguished Lecture Series (http://www.cra-w.org/dls) in which distinguished lecturers visit colleges, universities, and regional conferences in North America to provide a panel discussion on applying to and succeeding in graduate school. 

The three graduate school workshops sometimes attracted senior undergraduate students too. Professor Yvonne Coady of the University of Victoria helped new graduate students hone their graduate school survival skills. Professor Susanne Hambrusch (Purdue University) suggested ways to start technical conversations with conference attendees, and may even have helped prepare some for a future pitch to venture capitalists. Professor Lori Clarke (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), addressed how to write and publish papers while maintaining the ethical standards of the profession.

The graduate workshop provided a sampler of the types of programs included each year in CRA-W's Grad Cohort for Women (http://www.cra-w.org/gradcohort). The Grad Cohort is a two-day program that provides career-building sessions and creates a community for sustaining students through their graduate work. The Cohort is open to first- and second-year graduate students, and is generously funded by Google and Microsoft.

The workshop for early career researchers also attracted advanced graduate students who were curious about what lies ahead. The sessions provided techniques for building one's research program and preparing for promotion in the initial five years after graduation.  

Dr. Cecilia Aragon (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and Professor Justine Cassell (Northwestern University) explained how expanding both your research and your contacts are important to success. While it is natural for academic researchers to form close working relationships with members of other institutions, it is also important for members of industrial and government research labs to stay connected with the external research community.  

Professor Emerita Carla Schlatter Ellis (Duke University), and Professor Danyluk (Williams College) helped participants identify ways to balance the demands in their personal and professional lives. Dr. Dilma da Silva (IBM T.J. Watson Research Center) and Professor Nancy Amato (Texas A&M) guided participants in preparing for promotion, both tenure in academic institutions and more senior positions in research labs.

The early career workshop provided a small subset of three Career Mentoring Workshops (CMW) (http://www.cra-w.org/mentorWrkshp) held periodically by CRA-W, often in conjunction with major conferences. The CMW-R addresses the needs of those in, or aspiring to, research faculty positions. The CMW-E serves those in undergraduate education. The CMW-L Workshop addresses the needs of those in industrial or government research labs.

CRA-W, with sponsorship from AT&T Research Labs, also hosted a luncheon for those interested in industrial and government research labs. This annual luncheon provides a unique opportunity for lab members to meet, address common concerns, and recommend programs to both CRA-W and the Grace Hopper Conference.

Ms. Elizabeth Kierstead, an undergraduate from Columbia, perhaps summed it up best when she said: 

"Grace Hopper was an incredible experience for me, as it was a great way to connect with female computer science professionals further along in their careers, and to explore the array of options open to me as an undergraduate computer science major. I met a few women doing award-winning research in parallel computing, and people that had worked for decades at the likes of HP and Lockheed Martin, along with many young women just a few years older than me who were already pursuing PhDs, and I have begun to think a lot more seriously about what I would like to do when I graduate because of the conference. It was also just incredibly reassuring to find such a vast network of intelligent women working or studying in a computer science related field." 

It is likely that all the participants have similar stories of inspiration, learning and new resolve, and that collectively strengthens the computer science pipeline for all of us.


Dr. Joann J. Ordille is a Consulting Member of the Technical Staff at Avaya Labs Research.

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