When I joined Brown CS as a communications and outreach specialist eight years ago, most of what I initially encountered was reassuringly as I’d expected. Coffee consumption was as high or higher than I’d seen in the tech sector. One of the legends of the field was lecturing in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. There was an entire mailing list devoted to a thriving board game culture.
But one of the first emails I received was more of a surprise. Written by a Brown CS alum, it was less of a lament for the past and more of a critique of the present, a hope for the future.
“I’d heard the depressing statistics: in 2011, only 17% of the computer science degrees awarded in the US went to women,” she writes. “In fact, this ratio had dropped by more than half since 1985, when women earned 37% of the CS degrees….Looking forward to the 2014 Commencement, the Brown CS Department will award degrees to 120 undergrads: 26 to women (22%), 94 to men (78%). That’s roughly the same number of women as in my graduating class, but more than twice as many men….as I look forward to sending my daughter to Brown next year to study CS, I hope the department is doing all it can to create an inclusive environment.”
What’s happened since? We’ve seen a 10% jump in women concentrators (26% to 36%) between 2014 and 2018, and in the past three years our percentage of women concentrators has remained between 36 and 38. “It’s near impossible to determine the cause of this shift,” says Brown CS Staff Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Liaison Laura Dobler, “and would likely take a series of qualitative studies with our women students to really get into specifics.”
But she has some ideas: for one, increased financial, administrative, and faculty support for Women in Computer Science (WiCS), which has been working to increase participation and expand its mentorship program.
Eliza Berman is a WiCS coordinator. “When we ask new members why they want to join WiCS,” she says, “the overwhelming response is that they want to meet women in their classes and in their concentration. We believe that by connecting underclassmen mentees to upperclassmen mentors through our Mentorship Program and hosting events throughout the semester where we can talk about issues such as impostor syndrome, WiCS helps foster a greater sense of community and belonging among Women in CS at Brown. Every year, our organization grows in size, and members of our large WiCS alumna network regularly ask to come back and speak to current members about where they are now and to offer advice.”
Laura has other ideas for what might have caused the increase in women concentrators: for one, more scholarships and travel stipends for the Grace Hopper Celebration, which connects thousands of women in tech. Another is a cultural shift both nationally (including early intervention coding programs like Girls Who Code and CS4All and growing public perception that coding knowledge is required for future jobs) and within Brown CS (more mechanisms for student feedback and discussion, increased TA training on understanding implicit bias, and the Socially Responsible Computing initiative).
Another important factor that she cites is representation. We’ve hired several women faculty members in the past few years, and we also have women PhDs and postdocs teaching courses. Numerous faculty members have been intentional about increasing diversity among their TA and HTA staff. In short, our women students are finding role models and mentors. They’re seeing women like themselves in the positions that they aspire to hold someday.
In that same spirit of representation, we’re putting our women alums front and center in this issue by sharing some recent stories from Brown CS Blog. Much remains to be done before our community is as inclusive and equitable as we want it to be for women and for people from all underrepresented genders. However, we hope this will be another reminder to the women who are hoping to defend civil liberties on the electronic frontier, bring AI-powered video editing to millions, or keep one of the world’s biggest software companies on an ethical path. They can know that Brown CS alums who look a lot like them and who share the same motivations and ideals have gone on to tremendous success. We’re grateful to all of them.
Brown CS Alum danah boyd Wins An Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award
Founded almost thirty years ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is one of the leading nonprofit organizations defending civil liberties in the digital world. In 1992, they established their Pioneer Award to recognize leaders on the electronic frontier who are extending freedom and innovation in the realm of information technology. The list of previous winners is formidable (it includes Anita Borg, Tim Berners-Lee, Douglas Engelbart, and Limor Fried), and on September 12, 2019, Brown CS alum and Advisory Board member danah boyd joined them alongside author William Gibson and surveillance-fighting organization Oakland Privacy.
In her acceptance speech, danah addressed what she called a "great reckoning" that's begun to occur in response to a patriarchal and exclusionist industry whose values, she says, have been lost or violated. "People can change," she said. "Institutions can change. But doing so requires all who harmed — and all who benefited from harm — to come forward, admit their mistakes, and actively take steps to change the power dynamics. It requires everyone to hold each other accountable, but also to aim for reconciliation not simply retribution."
She also offered advice on how to achieve this: "Let’s stop designing the technologies envisioned in dystopian novels. We need to heed the warnings of artists, not race head-on into their nightmares. Let’s focus on hearing the voices and experiences of those who have been harmed because of the technologies that made this industry so powerful. And let’s collaborate with and design alongside those communities to fix these wrongs, to build just and empowering technologies rather than those that reify the status quo."
Currently working as a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, danah is the founder and president of the Data and Society Research Institute and serves as a Visiting Professor at New York University. She also serves on the boards of Crisis Text Line and Social Science Research Council and is a Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian. Widely recognized as an authority in the field of social media research, her recent work focuses on how data-driven technologies can amplify inequities, mistrust, and hate. This recognition by the EFF is the latest in a long list of accomplishments, including (most recently) being named to the Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech, winning the Award for Public Sociology from the American Sociological Association, and being named the “smartest academic in the technology field” by Fortune.
We caught up with danah recently, and she shares the following with our readers:
Well, it's been a strange two years, arguably looking a lot more like a dystopian novel than we could've imagined two years ago. The pandemic has upended so many aspects of society, rearranged work and family life, and asked us to interact with technology at unprecedented levels. Two years ago, I couldn't have imagined a world in which parents from all socioeconomic backgrounds would be begging their children to spend more time in front of screens. Screens for schools, screens for childcare, screens for making it through all sorts of quarantines with a modicum of sanity.
In talking with my grandpa about the stories his parents told of the 1918 pandemic, we couldn't help but note how technology offered opportunities in 2020 that weren't available 100 years ago. There were virtual seders and weddings, allowing people to connect remotely when in-person wasn't possible. Countless hours of TikTok dance videos and Netflix offerings provided entertainment when bars and clubs were gone. Zoom school sucked, but it was better than no school. Virtual work was a mixed blessing, but many more people could work without being vectors of spread now compared to a century ago. The irony of this networked world is that our strongest relationships are stronger because of the pandemic, but the weak ties that we rely on for innovation, job opportunity, social camaraderie, and a feeling of connection are completely disjointed. Making and maintaining weak ties online is hard.
Of course, our reliance on technology and data has also introduced other kinds of brittleness. Supply chains broke, sending people to scramble for toilet paper. Models that are tuned to be efficient weren't resilient to notable changes. On top of the data issues, we also saw a lack of flexibility in the labor market and a lack of resilience to climate changes. Too many technologies are dependent on chips made in Taiwan, which is suffering from a serious drought, and from components produced in areas where there are serious labor shortages. Not only does this mean an inability to get a new computer, but it also means that used cars have increased in value. Technology and data are central to our contemporary world, but the brittleness in data models and supply chains creates ripples with significant social and geopolitical implications.
On my end, I've been grappling with the 2020 US census as an ethnographer. This once-a-decade count of the population of the country is the most complex governmental operational outside of going to war. Getting everyone to be counted is daunting in the best of times. In a year shaped by a pandemic with political headwinds streaming at hurricane speeds, producing democracy's data infrastructure was an uphill battle at every turn. Watching this unfold has made me think a lot about the illusions we have about data. We imagine census data as a factual accounting of the public. Precise, neutral, objective. It never was, it never will be, and yet, by revealing the limitations of the gold standard in population data, the Census Bureau is in the unenviable position of being challenged by nearly everyone.
Even as the census unfolded, we watched the politicization of data in every direction. Some states refused to share detailed covid data, while others engaged in creative accounting schemes. The gaps in what we know reveal more about our society than the data we have. I often think back to the third clause of the 14th amendment. After the abolition of slavery by the 13th, the 14th guaranteed birthright citizenship and eliminated the racist 3/5ths clause from the Constitution. But few people remember the next piece of it, whereby any state who denied the right to vote to men over the age of 21 who had not been convicted of a crime would see their census numbers reduced accordingly. To this day, we don't collect data about who is denied the right to vote because no one in Congress wants to pursue this remedy.
Data have politics. Technology has politics. And this has been a period when all of this is on display.
Diverse Career Paths: Brown CS Alum Karen Smith Catlin Helps Build Better Allies
“Something about Brown CS influenced me,” says alum Karen Smith Catlin, whose distinctive career path has taken her from working at Brown’s Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship (IRIS) to Vice-President of Engineering at Adobe to a new phase as acclaimed author and speaker on inclusive workspaces. “It’s a fearlessness and an idealism that says, ‘If not us, then who? Let’s get this done.’ When you graduate with a CS degree from Brown, nobody can take that credibility away from you. That opened a lot of doors for me.”
So much of Karen’s career has focused on mentorship and positive connection between people that her advice to students looking for a more unusual career may come as no surprise: “Reach out to the people you might want to talk to! Get their insight and think about different product spaces, different applications of technology. Be curious. Learn about possibilities.”
Brown was the only institution that Karen, a self-described crafter and maker who was good at math and loved puzzles, applied to after high school. She took on a CS concentration with no prior computing experience whatsoever. “My father had been hearing a lot about computer science and thought I’d enjoy it,” she remembers. “It seemed like fun and I thought it’d allow me to support myself. I came from modest means, so that was important.”
Starting out with what was Professor Andy van Dam’s CS 11 at the time (now CSCI 0150), Karen hadn’t expected to be enthralled: “The community was amazing. It was hard, and I struggled, but I loved it.” When Andy began devoting more of his time to educational computing, Karen became one of the first developers for the Brown ALgorithm Simulator and Animator (BALSA), a cutting-edge electronic classroom, running software that demonstrated introductory concepts.
Educational software became a passion, and she used a group independent study program with Elisabeth Waymire and Janine Roeth to create a new seminar class. “It was the first of its kind,” Karen says, “an entire curriculum around educational software with readings, guest speakers, and design projects. What thrilled me was that other students continued the Educational Software Seminar for more than a decade after we graduated – just a great leveling-up of collective knowledge.”
In her last summer before graduating, Karen continued her interest in applied research with a job at IRIS, a new group at Brown that focused on hypertext and combining object-oriented programming with modern user interface technology. “This was long before today’s browsers,” she says, “and it makes me happy that our work had an influence on HTML and the Internet that followed.” Happy to be coding for a living, she signed on full-time with IRIS after graduating and stayed with the organization for a half-decade.
Was all of this something that she’d anticipated? “I never had a five-year plan,” Karen says. “The landscape changes so frequently – five, ten, and let alone 35 years ago, many of us couldn’t have predicted the careers we have now. My best advice is to make sure your work aligns with your values. Stay agile while following your interests.”
Eventually, an economic downturn caused a funding shortage for IRIS, and Karen and her husband moved to England, where he’d grown up. But it felt like a move to the service sector after years of doing cutting-edge research, and Karen put California in her sights. It was 1991, and Silicon Valley was the absolute center of the technology world. She found a job at GO Corporation, a pen-based computing pioneer whose OS predated even Apple’s early Newton tablet by two years.
“At that point,” Karen admits, “I was intimidated by the myth of Silicon Valley engineers. Even with my strong background in advanced object-oriented programming from Brown, I had impostor syndrome.” Instead of creating apps, she took a job writing documentation on how to create them, writing sample code. A few years later, a startup called Macromedia beckoned, and Karen began working in their localization department. It was project management at its finest, she says, and she built a reputation for being someone who partners well with different project teams, eventually founding their usability testing and product security groups. When Macromedia was bought by Adobe, she continued to move up the ranks, ending up as Vice-President of Engineering.
It was during her Adobe days that Karen first attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. “It was still small then,” she remembers, “but I wish I’d been involved years before.” She returned to work with new energy, quickly founding a women’s employee resource group at Adobe, where she helped equip women for career success. Mentorship quickly became a new love. It’s what truly made her happy, Karen says, more than her ascent to the top echelons of the company.
And so she did a career pivot and started a business as a leadership coach. “I left tech,” she says, “but not innovation, not that mindset. Instead of building software myself, I wanted to help women who are doing it. I still feel that way today.” But she soon realized that there was a problem: companies that thought of themselves as meritocracies really weren’t, and her role as coach didn’t feel like enough. Reform was needed to bring about real inclusivity, and as Karen contemplated her next step, she settled on the word allies to reflect a new trend of men taking action in support of diversity. Her initial focus was on male allies, but when she found that a hoped-for Twitter handle had already been taken, she realized that @BetterAllies was a superior choice, and the Better Allies Initiative was born: “It’s not just something that men can do – anyone with privilege and power can use it on behalf of others. For example, as a white woman I can help Black women, and as a straight woman I can advocate for LGBTQ-friendly policies.”
The initial premise of the Better Allies Initiative was to share everyday actions that anyone could take to be a better ally for someone in a historically underrepresented group (HUG). It proved popular, and public speaking requests began flowing in. “And almost every time I spoke,” Karen says, “someone in the audience would ask if I had a book, because they wanted more.” She published Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces in 2019 (a second edition came out recently) and a companion volume, The Better Allies Approach to Hiring, followed a year later.
Two years later, the work continues. Asked for her latest thoughts on how our field can improve gender diversity, Karen cites the importance of expectations. “When parents buy toys or send kids to summer camp,” she says, “they’re making decisions on their child’s behalf, and ‘I don’t think my daughter would like to code’ might be one of them. As parents, we can do more: we can tell our young women to try tech on for size. There are also societal expectations about what girls should be good at. In Turkey, women computer scientists outnumber the men. Why can’t that be us?”
But given the events of 2020, is she still hopeful for societal change? “There’s a shift toward equity and social justice that I’m optimistic about,” Karen says. “Whatever the area, I’m seeing an appetite for individuals wanting to take action in a way that wasn’t there years ago. In tech, some of this is because men are finally listening to all the stories of discrimination that have been shared. Anti-racism books are at the top of the bestseller lists, and people are voting in record numbers. But they’re saying that diversity and inclusion statements aren’t enough. We’re all demanding to see results, the impact.”
As we start to wrap up, Karen lights upon an unexpected topic that ties together multiple threads of her work and life. “I firmly believe,” she says, “that public speaking is a multivitamin for any career. My first exposure to it was as a UTA, getting up in front of a class. I started my career writing code, and on my way to becoming a VP, I got the stage fright that most people get. Later, I was told that the best way to start a coaching business was to go out and talk from your own experience, so I started doing a lot of public speaking, even though I hated it.”
“But when you get comfortable talking to others,” says Karen, “you get visibility for what you do that could otherwise get missed. One of the reasons I wrote my book Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking was to help everyone improve their public speaking skills and to make sure that women and people from HUGs are getting the information that I got. I want them to be onstage, getting the visibility they deserve, so we can keep disrupting the stereotypes about who belongs in our industry.”
Alum Entrepreneurs: Geneviève Patterson Brings AI-Powered Video Editing To Millions
Geneviève Patterson is wasting no time. Four years after earning her doctorate from Brown CS, she sold her video editing app company (Trash, co-founded with Hannah Donovan) to photo and video editing app VSCO in 2020, a move that put her creation into the hands of millions worldwide. Her advice to current Brown students interested in entrepreneurship is simple: "Intern at an early-stage startup (less than 10 employees). This will show you if this type of life is what you want to do. That's how I first got a feeling for what kind of startup I wanted to make."
Geneviève received her PhD in 2016 under the direction of James Hays (now at Georgia Institute of Technology and Argo AI) for work on crowd-driven image understanding. She tells us that some of the first classes she took at Brown CS were the most enjoyable and the most useful: "I loved my early courses in computational photography, optimization, and databases, all of which I used at my startup! The academic community at Brown was a wonderful incubator for me as well."
After earning her doctorate, Geneviève first joined Microsoft Research New England as a Postdoctoral Researcher, then co-founded Trash in 2018 with a mission of enabling everyone to easily share their personal story in video form, regardless of skill. Put simply, Trash uses artificial intelligence to analyze a user's video clips, find the shots with highest visual interest, and then seamlessly combine them into a single video. Users can then perform various edits to the video, including changing its sequence, applying filters, altering its speed, or varying its background music.
Trash was acquired by VSCO, a photo and video editing app with a base of 100 million users and more than two million paid subscribers. Trash's technology is available to VSCO subscribers first in the form of support for multi-clip video editing, with other features to follow. For example, users may someday be able to save a collections of video edits as "recipes" for future use, similar to an existing VSCO feature for photos.
Appointed as VSCO's Head of Product Research, Geneviève doesn't see a doctorate as a strange choice for someone who was interested in entrepreneurship. "To get a PhD," she says, "you learn how to become a world-class expert in just a few years. At my startup, I had to do a half a dozen different engineering, management, PR, and fundraising jobs I was completely unprepared for. My PhD training made me confident in that situation and able to rise to the challenge. Succeeding at a startup is often possible because of the friends and support community you have as well. The people I connected with during grad school turned out to be incredibly valuable."
We caught up with Geneviève recently, and she shares the following with our readers:
Since joining VSCO I've been able to branch out. I'm working on a blockchain-related product for Artists and Creators (look out for an announcement next month!). Working at a larger company has also made my work hours more reasonable and stable (Thank God). I've been able to volunteer with Climate Change AI (http://climatechange.ai). This past May I co-taught a summer school class (http://ccai-course.github.io) introducing statistical machine learning to climate scientists. Next summer, we plan on running a larger course covering Mitigation and Adaptation to Climate Change strategies that use AI (please join the CCAI community at https://community.climatechange.ai/home if you are interested).
Diverse Career Paths: Brown CS Alum Sharon Lo Ponders How Products Can Harm Society
We're reposting this article with the kind permission of Brown Alumni Magazine, where it first appeared. You can read their full November-December 2020 issue at https://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/issues/november-december-2020.
Microsoft constantly develops new technology, and Sharon Lo ’16 considers how those creations could wreak havoc upon the world. As a member of Microsoft’s Ethics & Society organization, Lo actually gets paid by the company to do this.
“You’re coming to a team where they’ve worked on [a product] for months,” Lo says. “And we say, ‘Okay, let’s brainstorm all the bad things your technology can do to harm people.’”
Lo serves as a product manager, helping developers address and reconcile the hard questions raised when producing novel technologies. After studying computer science at Brown and working for several years in a more conventional role at Microsoft, Lo wanted to dive into how the company’s technologies influenced society—and talked her way into a position within the company’s relatively new ethics branch.
This year, Lo spent considerable time thinking about Microsoft’s recently released Custom Voice, a way to design synthetic voices (or what the company calls “voice fonts”) for an array of purposes. Inevitably, the ability to customize a realistic digital voice led to philosophical challenges for Lo and the rest of her team. Among them: How could the tech spread misinformation? Would a world with digitally-created voices undermine the authenticity of real human speech?
To approach these kinds of issues, Lo and her team rely on a “harms framework” they developed, influenced by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and intended to build accountability into products. They use the framework in part to consider which societal groups are most likely to be negatively impacted by a given technology, whether directly or indirectly, and then they assess how to mitigate that harm. This process often includes focus groups. In the case of Custom Voice, Lo’s team spoke with voice actors.
The company’s public ethics principles also offer broad values-based guidelines, such as promoting fairness and transparency, for addressing potential harms. Yet the increasing adoption of these sorts of reforms across the tech industry has been subjected to much scrutiny, as critics ask whether companies are merely using ethics as a public relations strategy.
Lo acknowledges that pushing for ethical decision-making in a private sector tech company is not always easy but argues that in the absence of clear and effective regulations, teams like hers are essential. She points out that new technologies arise quickly, leading to specific ethical questions requiring in-depth thought and attention—hard to meaningfully address with the broad stroke of law. Companies like Microsoft should be thinking of ethics not as a matter of compliance but as a practice built into the process of innovation itself, she argues.
Microsoft decided to limit Custom Voice to approved and vetted companies, requiring them to verify receiving written and informed consent from voice actors. They laid out additional guidelines for the appropriate amount of disclosure that companies would need to include when employing a synthetic but realistic sounding voice so as not to openly deceive people.
But the vetting itself proves difficult. One company asked Microsoft if it could use the Custom Voice to recreate voices of the deceased. Lo’s team decided that given the absence of clear consent—how could the dead have known their voices could ever be regenerated?—the company should not be allowed to use the technology.
“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Who am I to answer this question?’” Lo says. “But I’ve always been really interested in how we think about what’s right versus what’s wrong, and how we rationally build that into our principles and models.”
We caught up with Sharon recently, and she shares the following with our readers:
Reflecting on the article and having been on Microsoft’s Ethics & Society team for another year, I’m more and more seeing ethical product development as less of deducing right or wrong, but more so leaning into value tensions: asking the “why,” “how might this impact___?, “how do we de-risk our technologies for our customers?”
My most recent work has been focused on Microsoft’s recent partnership with OpenAI (https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2020/09/22/microsoft-teams-up-with-openai-to-exclusively-license-gpt-3-language-model) to license GPT-3. GPT-3 is the largest and most advanced language model in the world – with the capability to create anything that has a language structure (writing essays, summarizing texts, creating computer code). With this powerful technology being integrated in our products such as Github’s Copilot (https://copilot.github.com), we’re asking questions such as: how will GPT-3 impact the creative industry? How will GPT-3 redefine what creativity means? How will GPT-3 challenge the ideas of authorship, originality, and IP ownership? How do we ensure we design experiences that augments not replaces human judgement?
Right now, we often purely choose the path of business success, but how do we bring in the lens of the impacts to society, excluded, and indirect stakeholders that aren’t the customers we’re selling to. It’s a tricky choreography navigating “capitalist ethics” if you will – bringing risk management to the tech industry, which thrives in innovation and novelty-seeking. I continue to learn a lot on how to have these conversations most effectively; that the real spark is when we move beyond mitigations, but exercise our moral imagination to create a more ethical future as builders of the technology.
Alum Dr. Barbara Gershon Ryder (Brown 1969) Wins NCWIT's Harrold And Notkin Research And Graduate Mentoring Award
"Dr. Ryder is a high achiever in her research, mentoring and diversity service," notes Professor and Department Head Calvin J. Ribbens of Virginia Tech in his recommendation letter for Brown CS alum Barbara Ryder. "As the first woman at Professor II (an honorific professorial grade above full professor) in the Computer Science Department at Rutgers and the first woman department head in the history of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, she has been a trailblazer for women of high achievement in computing."
Barbara, now the J. Byron Maupin Professor Emerita of Engineering in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, has been named the recipient of the 2021 Harrold and Notkin Research and Graduate Mentoring Award. The honor, sponsored by the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) Board of Directors, recognizes faculty members from non-profit institutions who distinguish themselves with outstanding research and excellent graduate mentoring, as well as those who recruit, encourage, and promote women and minorities in computing fields. It's bestowed in memory of Mary Jean Harrold and Brown CS alum David Notkin, in honor of their outstanding research, graduate mentoring, and diversity contributions.
"As an academic," Barbara has said, "the greatest influence I can have is in shaping the attitudes of my students. My PhD, MS, and undergraduate students have been influenced by my research emphasis on algorithms and their empirical validation. The impact is hard to measure, but each successive student can build on a legacy of theoretical and empirical rigor. Teaching students how to do research on their own and then to present their accomplishments to others can be very satisfying. Showing undergraduates how to do independent work with our group is especially rewarding."
Barbara received her A.B. degree in Applied Mathematics from Brown University (1969), her Masters degree in Computer Science from Stanford University (1971) and her Ph.D degree in Computer Science at Rutgers University (1982). From 2008-2015 she served as Head of the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, and retired on September 1, 2016. Dr. Ryder served on the faculty of Rutgers from 1982-2008. She also worked in the 1970s at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ. Dr. Ryder's research interests on static and dynamic program analyses for object-oriented systems, focus on usage in practical software tools for ensuring the quality and security of industrial-strength applications.
Barbara became a Fellow of the ACM in 1998, received the IEEE Computer Society TCSE Distinguished Women in Science and Engineering Award (2018), received the ACM SIGSOFT Influential Educator Award (2015), the Virginia AAUW Woman of Achievement Award (2014), and the ACM President's Award (2008), was selected as a CRA-W Distinguished Professor (2004), and received the ACM SIGPLAN Distinguished Service Award (2001). She has been an active leader in ACM (e.g., Vice President 2010-2012, Secretary-Treasurer 2008-2010; ACM Council 2000-2008; General Chair, FCRC 2003; Chair ACM SIGPLAN (1995-97)). She served as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Computer Research Association (2014-2020, 1998-2001). Dr. Ryder has served as an editorial board member of ACM Transactions on Software Engineering and Methodology, ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems, IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, Software: Practice and Experience, and Science of Computer Programming.
While Barbara was Department Head of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, the percentage of women in the undergraduate program increased from 4.2 percent (Fall 2007) to more than 16 percent (Fall 2016), reaching 19 percent in Fall 2019. Dr. Ribbens remarked, “These dramatic results are testimony to the effectiveness of Dr. Ryder’s culture-changing work as Department Head at Virginia Tech. It was a fitting capstone to her leadership and tireless efforts in mentoring women in computer science when NCWIT recognized the department with Second Place in the 2016 NCWIT Extension Services Transformation (NEXT) Awards .” She also was a founding member of the NCWIT VA/DC Aspirations in Computing Awards, having co-chaired these awards in 2012-13 and 2014-15 and having served on the organizing committee since 2011.
One of her main concerns as a mentor, Barbara explains, is getting more women to seriously consider a computer science career: "There are too few women in academia and fewer still that hold tenure-track senior research positions. The result is that young women who enter the university see too few role models of successful individuals of their own gender. By exposing women early to the excitement of doing research in a supportive research group, you can initiate them into the joys of collaborative research. The process of doing research is one of posing questions and finding their answers. If you do this in a way that encourages joint participation in egoless ‘what if’ questions, then by the time you find a problem solution, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. True collaboration achieves more than you would have by working individually and independently, an environment especially appealing to many young women scientists.”
Diverse Career Paths: Brown CS Alum Sky Adams Aims To Increase Diversity In K-12 CS
Last spring, Brown CS alum Sky Adams was chosen as the first woman director of the award-winning Computer Science Academy at Santa Barbara High School. She’s not one to mince words, either about the challenges of working in K-12 education or the experience of being underrepresented in CS. “The pay isn’t great, the hours are long,” she says, “and it’s stressful. But it’s one of the most satisfying jobs….Back when I was applying to computer science PhD programs, I realized that my heart wasn’t in it – being a female in CS got to be lonely. So I thought about the best way to change that for future students, and I loved teaching.”
Looking back at her college days, Sky says the first indication that she was interested in education was a summer job teaching sailing. “I felt the same thing as a UTA,” she explains. “It was really satisfying – the kind of work that I was willing to do even in the late hours of the night, when most things wouldn’t have been enjoyable. My professors made a huge impact. [Former Brown CS Professor] Pascal Van Hentenryck was great, he was really excited about teaching and got to know his students on an individual basis.”
After earning her Master’s in education from University of California, Santa Barbara, Sky began teaching at Santa Barbara High in 2016. Three years later, she took on the role of co-director at the Computer Science Academy, and then became director in June of 2020. The school’s CS Academy produced four winners of the Congressional App Challenge in 2018, all young women, and its students and teachers have won National Center for Women and Information Technology awards each year.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about being the first female director,” she tells us. “It was in the plan since I was hired, and I’ve been trained for it. I do think it’s good for students to see a woman in my role.”
Sky explains that there are two challenges facing educators who want to see students from historically underrepresented groups find CS careers: getting them interested in the field and then getting them to stay interested. “There are many aspects to this,” she says. “Classroom culture is very important: partner projects to help keep kids comfortable and learning together. For minority students, we have to make sure the curriculum isn’t focused on a culture that isn’t theirs – we really have to watch the examples we use, the movies and tv shows we bring in. We need to allow students to design projects that fit their interests. And counselors are important: they need to make sure that they don’t inadvertently guide students away from CS without realizing. It’s a big mental shift for a lot of people to appreciate that CS is used in many different fields.”
Increasing diversity, Sky says, getting her CS students to match the demographics of the city around her, is her biggest goal. “One major element,” she says, “is to get people involved. I’m very lucky that we already have strong connections with industry, a lot of people locally who are willing to help out our current students. The other challenge is newly adopted computer science standards that we have to figure out how to implement at a county level. We’re doing that in most of our classes, but CS is an elective, so not all students take it. Which means that we need to figure out how to integrate it into other topics, and then train teachers for that.”
The most important thing for Brown students who are interested in a similar career path, Sky says, is volunteering: “If you’re at all interested in the field, volunteer. Give it a try. If it’s what you like, it becomes a real joy. Just do it.”
Sky adds that the internet has a dearth of information on how to enter her field and the various credentialing options, especially in California. If any of our readers would like more details about working in K-12 CS education, click here to contact her, and she'd be happy to talk to you.
We caught up with Sky recently, and she shares the following with our readers:
Since becoming the director of the Computer Science Academy I have focused on increasing participation of underrepresented groups so that our class demographics match those of the school. The first step was to get a detailed picture of where we stood currently and what the trends over time were. I pulled data from our student database to understand the demographics of each class we offer and how they compared to the previous year.
Unfortunately the data from before that was far from complete, but even with just two years of data, some trends became apparent. Although the enrollment of girls in our classes was low, it remained constant across all levels of CS classes we offered and across both years. Conversely, while our enrollment of Hispanic students in introductory courses was increasing and nearing proportions comparable to the rest of the school, our Hispanic students were not continuing on to take a second CS class at the same rates as other students.
After reviewing the data and trends with the other teachers in the academy, we set goals and developed plans to achieve them. For example, we knew that strong personal relationships with students increase their likelihood of academic success, especially for Hispanic students, so we made a conscious effort to work on our relationships with our Hispanic students even more. We also wanted to know why this trend was happening. We had revised our curriculum and lessons repeatedly to make them more culturally responsive, yet we wondered how we could continue to improve it and if there was some other factor influencing Hispanic students not to take a second CS course.
So, we surveyed the students and matched their responses to their demographic data and found that non-Hispanic students were far more likely to enroll in their first CS class with the intent of taking a second than Hispanic students were. Furthermore, by late in the course, few students had changed their minds about whether or not they wanted to take another CS course.
Based on this, we decided that while we will continue to look for ways to improve our curriculum and our relationships with our students, we would also work on changing people's perceptions of who should do computer science and getting Hispanic students to see themselves as having a place in the field. I am about to have access to the student data for this school year so I can evaluate how effective our initiatives last year were and set new priorities for this year.
Brown CS Alum Mneera Abdullah Saud Is A 2021 Rhodes Scholar
“I owe this opportunity to my professors, friends, and mentors: I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had the privilege of learning from them while at Brown, and I know this would not have been at all possible without them," says Brown CS alum Mneera Abdullah Saud. She's just joined the Rhodes Scholars Class of 2021 and plans to pursue two Master's degrees at Oxford: one in refugee and forced migration studies, and the other in the social science of the Internet. "I'm really excited about the two programs. I want to do the MSc in the Social Science of the Internet in particular to historicize and highlight how central the digital activism of Saudi women has been to the recent reforms in the country."
The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious international scholarship in the world, and it covers all expenses for two or three years of graduate study at the University of Oxford in England. Mneera, a native of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, was chosen as one of just three scholars from the region. It's the third consecutive year that a Brown alum has been among the recipients.
“Brown has taught me the value of an interdisciplinary approach, which is more important today than ever in addressing global challenges," she says. "An understanding of forced migration will also entail an understanding of the disinformation on Facebook that could incite ethnic violence, and I want to use the multidisciplinary foundation Brown gave me to counter efforts towards the exclusion of marginalized communities as they materialize anywhere -- even on the web."
Mneera is the second Brown CS recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship, following Nabeel Gillani in 2011.
We caught up with Mneera recently, and she shares the following with our readers:
The most recent women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia took place almost entirely online: for five years, the hashtag #EndMaleGuardianship was a trending topic on Twitter until most of the guardianship laws were repealed last year. In countering state-sanctioned and traditional media narratives that describe our position as “recipients” of rights, my proposed project aims to center the narrative on reform in Saudi Arabia on the digital activism of Saudi women. I think there’s a lot of potential here for technical tools to help answer what are fundamentally questions in the social sciences, and I’m excited to be able to build on the multidisciplinary foundation I gained at Brown in pursuing this project. For example, one of the two aspects of digital movements that I’m interested in studying is the tension between visibility and influence. Can we use natural language processing to measure pro-state bias in traditional news coverage of the guardianship campaign? And how does that compare to what Twitter data might tell us about the grassroots nature of the campaign?
The second relates to a concerning trend in recent years that has seen social media networks go from being spaces that promote digital activism to platforms that facilitate digital authoritarianism. I think studying this shift is valuable because as important as it is to investigate how these platforms have facilitated social movements, it’s also equally important to understand how they’ve constrained them. The Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project is dedicated to studying this trend, and I look forward to learning from the many talented researchers there.
Brown CS regularly publishes news articles about our pioneering and innovative alums. We have no financial involvement in any of the companies mentioned above and have not been compensated in any way for this story. The views and opinions expressed above are those of individuals, and do not necessarily state or reflect those of Brown CS, nor does their publication here constitute an endorsement of them.