Highlight on Alum, Suzanne Matthews

Originally Printed in the Summer/Fall 2013 Newsletter.

Dr. Suzanne J. Matthews is an assistant professor of computer science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the United States Military Academy, West Point. Her research centers around algorithms for analyzing, storing, and sharing large collections of phylogenetic trees. For academic year 2013-2014, Dr. Matthews and her students received a CRA-W/CDC Collaborative Research Experience for Undergradutes (CREU) award. For their project, they will be exploring parallel computing by updating an existing, open source MapReduce phylogenetic application (MrsRF) that Dr. Matthews co-wrote.

Prior to her appointment as an assistant professor, Dr. Matthews received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from Texas A&M University. She received a B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her honors include a Texas A&M University Dissertation Fellowship, a Rensselaer Master Teaching Fellowship, and memberships in Upsilon Pi Epsilon and Phi Kappa Phi. She is an alum of the CRA-W CMW-E and Grad Cohort workshops, as well as the Distributed Mentoring Program (DMP).

Q: How did you become interested in pursuing a career in computer science and computational biology?

It was quite by accident, really. In the beginning of high school, I wanted to go into medicine, perhaps become a veterinarian or a doctor. I really loved biology and learning about plants and animals. At the end of sophomore year, I found out that we’d have to dissect cats (cats!) in A.P. Biology. Then I found out that they dissect people in medical school. Well that was that. I wanted nothing more to do with medicine. Around the same time, two of my male friends in biology were talking about how interesting their Pascal class was. They kept on talking about how they got to make all these cool programs and how much fun it was to create games. That piqued my curiosity; I took Pascal my junior year. I wasn’t very good at it, but I thought it was interesting enough that I signed up for C++ the following year. That summer, I decided to learn C++ on my own as a way to prepare for the course. As I learned about object oriented programming, I started seeing parallels between biology and computing: A cell can be thought of as an object consisting of smaller objects. The principles of inheritance and encapsulation existed in living things! I got this crazy idea to somehow combine computer science and biology. So I decided to major in computer science. I learned about computational biology during my first semester at RPI, and since then, it’s been my true passion.

Q: How did your experience with DMP/Grad Cohort influence your career path?

DMP made all the difference. I had terrible self confidence as an undergraduate. I felt other people were better programmers (and thus better computer scientists) than I was. My GPA wasn’t particularly high. I was timid about finding out about internships and was rejected outright by several because my GPA didn’t make the cut. As a result, I never got the chance to work on any large software projects outside of the classroom. This lowered my confidence even further, since my peers (all male) were interning at awesome places like IBM, Microsoft, and Google, and I was not. When I heard about the DMP program, I was so convinced that I wasn’t good enough to get accepted that I actually didn’t apply the first time around. When I eventually did apply, I was so convinced that I’d never be matched up with someone who actually did computational biology that I was brutally honest about my interest in the subject and very specific about what problems looked interesting.

To my incredible shock and delight, not only was I accepted, but I was matched up with a wonderful and inspiring woman who was working on the problems I was interested in! Tiffani Williams was the first female computer scientist role model I ever had, and she was everything I wanted to be. I had an amazing experience working with her that summer, and it cemented a relationship that would eventually lead to me becoming her Ph.D. student and having a positive Ph.D. experience. I would never have made that connection without DMP. It truly changed my life.

Tiffani was the one who told me about CRA-W Grad Cohort program (and convinced me to apply). I truly believe that attending the Grad Cohort helped me become a successful graduate student. CMW-E was very helpful as I started out as a new faculty member.

Q: Why did you choose West Point to start your career after graduation?

I was so impressed with the department and the campus when I interviewed there. West Point is the oldest engineering school in the country, and has a rich history that spans back into the infancy of our nation. Its undergraduate engineering programs rank among the highest in the nation amongst 4-year colleges. I really liked the emphasis on teaching and working with undergraduates. The department struck me as being very warm, welcoming, and family friendly. I also liked the idea of being at an Engineering school where there was a low population of female undergraduates. When I attended RPI, the student body was 24% female. West Point is currently 16% female. I felt like I could empathize with and mentor our female students.

I also had a two-body problem, which certainly played a large part in things. My fiancé (now husband) worked in New York City, so I concentrated the majority of my search in that area. Taking a position at West Point also meant that he wouldn’t have to quit his job, making it easier for us to start our lives together.

Q: What has your experience at West Point been like?

I really love it here. I love working with undergraduates, and what undergraduates I have! The students at West Point are of very high caliber. They all know the meaning of hard work and are there because they want to be there. No one goes to West Point on a whim. It’s not that kind of school. I love teaching and working with bright and motivated students. My department is very close knit, and I feel at home with the other faculty. We have a lot of social activities and strong mentoring programs, which really help new faculty integrate into the department.

Q: What does your job involve? Do you get a sense that your experience is different from other university experiences?

Let’s see… currently most of my time during the school year is spent on teaching and advising. I typically teach two courses a semester and advise students on research, usually in the form of a capstone project. I’m also one of the academic counselors for our major, and actively mentor our computer science students. I also engage in service activities and serve on committees in and out of the university. In these ways, I feel my experience is typical of other four-year undergraduate schools. I do have more requirements on my time though. I’m expected to be around and available to students between the hours of 7:30 am and 4:00 pm. My students are cadets who will become active-duty army officers on graduation day and will then go on to command a platoon of soldiers (about 33 people) in different fields (like Signal, Transportation, or Aviation) and in different parts of the world. We do have a small population of international students, usually the children of dignitaries and/or ruling families of allied nations. I think I had a prince in one of my classes my first semester! At the end of the day though, they are typical undergraduates. Perhaps more patriotic, respectful, and physically fit, but undergraduates all the same.

Q: What challenges are you facing/do you think you will face as a starting assistant professor?

The biggest challenge is learning to balance the number of things requiring my time. As a graduate student, I had felt that I was doing a lot of work, balancing coursework and doing research on a number of projects. I thought an assistant professorship would be similar, except instead of taking coursework, I’d be teaching it. Boy, was I wrong! Teaching (especially at a Tier-1 Teaching university) is the number one priority, and good teaching takes a lot of prep and preparation. For every hour I teach, I spend several hours on prep. Between teaching, prep, advising, and attending meetings, much of my day gets eaten up. There are constant interruptions. In graduate school, you have large tracks of time to concentrate on work. As a professor, any stretch of uninterrupted time is a luxury. Making time for research is very important and is something that I continue to actively work on.

Q: Any thoughts or advice for someone applying for a faculty position? Any retrospective thoughts on what you might have done differently in graduate school?

Actually, I’m leading a panel discussion at Grace Hopper this year called “Navigating the Academic Job Search” in which we will be discussing exactly that! I think my biggest piece of advice is to start early. Even if you’re not 100% sure when you’re going to graduate, it’s never too early to start thinking about your parameters — what you want out of an institution and an appointment, where geographically you want to work, etc. Don’t wait until you actually start the job search to start thinking about these things! It will make the process harder. If there was anything I would have changed when I was preparing for the job search, it would have been this. I started thinking about these things too late, and my search was much more disorganized and haphazard than it needed to be. I still ended up in a wonderful place, but likely the process wouldn’t have been so stressful if I had thought things through earlier. Aside from that, I don’t think there is anything I would have done differently in graduate school. I had missteps along the way, but ultimately even those were valuable. So no, I don’t think I’d have done anything differently.

Q: Are you involved in other activities supporting women in computing?

Yes! Outreach is very near and dear to my heart. Other than serving on panels, I frequently volunteer in outreach activities to promote interest in computing among K-12 female students. While I was at Texas A&M, I was involved in the Expanding Your Horizons conference series and helped organize the first CS workshops for the conference at Texas A&M. We’re trying to see if we can start up something similar at West Point, to serve the young ladies in our community. Perhaps the highlight of my last year was having the opportunity to actually meet and talk to middle schoolers and high schoolers interested in computing. In February, I was a speaker at the Suffern Middle School Mother-Daughter Engineering breakfast. In August, I gave a talk to a group of high school students at the “Girls Who Code” program at Goldman Sachs. “Girls Who Code” is truly a revolutionary program; it was such a privilege to give a talk there! I was in a room filled with eager young ladies, many of whom reminded me of myself when I was in high school. I did my best to impart the kind of advice I would have liked to have heard back then. I got the impression that they got a lot out of my talk, which made my experience all the more rewarding.

Q: How do you balance life outside of work with your career objectives? What do you do for fun? 

A few weeks into my first semester as an assistant professor, a senior faculty member strolled into my office. Smiling broadly, he wrote the word “BALANCE” on my whiteboard, and circled it. “You’re doing great, but make sure you stay balanced!” he told me. “Be sure to rest!” The memory still brings a smile to my face. It’s been a year, and I still have his message written on my whiteboard. To stay balanced, I have to make the time to stay balanced. Having a supportive department certainly makes things easier. I try to be home around the same time my husband gets home from his job, so we have a couple of hours to spend together before I need to go to bed. We try to make that time more meaningful by taking long walks together and talking about our day. I also make sure that I don’t fall too far behind on sleep. Exercise is also really important. I do my best to go to the gym and/or jog regularly to keep myself mentally and physically fit.

For fun, I love reading, watching TV shows (especially sitcoms from my childhood), and going on long walks and hiking with my husband. For our honeymoon last year and our vacation this year, we spent a lot of time hiking in Vermont and the Adirondacks. We also have some surprisingly good trails in the area where we live. While I’m still a relatively inexperienced hiker, I love the outdoors and the feeling of accomplishment I get when I complete a particularly difficult hike. But, none of this would be possible if I didn’t make time for it.