Family History: Nahrstedt, Bajcsy Share Stage as First Mother-Daughter Pair Elected to the National Academy of Engineering
5/18/2022 12:23:32 PM
For about an hour last Wednesday, Klara Nahrstedt – Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering and Illinois Computer Science professor – took to an auditorium stage at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications right next to her mother, Ruzena Bajcsy, for a Fireside Chat as part of the Illinois CS Speaker Series.
Nahrstedt and Bajcsy – now retired from her most recent position as the NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley – discussed their paths into engineering academia, specifically computer science. They also detailed the challenges they faced as women in engineering, how their inspiration for what science can achieve carried them through, and even the time they collaborated on a 10-year research project.
But the primary reason they were on the stage together was for something entirely unique to the scientific community.
So, when discussion moderator Nancy M. Amato – Abel Bliss Professor and Illinois CS Department head – asked them if they would like to leave those in attendance with a parting thought, Nahrstedt began.
“For me, it was actually a big surprise to find out that me and my mom were the first mother-daughter pair in the NAE,” she said. “In some ways, this really was amazing to me. The paths we’ve had, different paths, impacted each other. I feel as though I am where I am currently because of a tremendous support network that not only includes the actions of others, but my genes.”
Then it was Bajcsy’s turn. A broad smile suddenly lit up her face, and, her arms outstretched, she exclaimed simply but powerfully: “I’m a proud mother.”
“And I’m thrilled to have been in this profession we have both shared,” she said. “One message, though, in appreciation of academia, is that I believe we have a certain luxury to think ahead. So, I would try to encourage those of you who participate in academia to think about what could be 10 years from now or 15 years from now.”
Few could offer up these words with more authority than Bajcsy, who has been a part of computing’s development through academia during a time of tremendous development.
She came to the United States to earn her second and final PhD in 1972 from Stanford University. Bajcsy then became a professor in the Computer and Information Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. There she established the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Lab in 1978.
Bajcsy spent 28 years at UPenn, two as head of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation, and 20 years at the University of California, Berkely. At her last stop, she was the founding director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) in 2001 – a multicampus organization comprising four campuses. As part of her activities in CITRIS, and together with the University of California Center for the Humanities, she also played a founding role in establishing a program in Digital Humanities.
Bajcsy’s path into academia started when she was just a child, growing up in the socialist country of Czechoslovakia. Her father was a civil engineer and her mother a medical doctor. Both, she said, instilled a spirit in her that women can accomplish whatever they set their mind to.
She set her mind to science.
“I have been good at math since the age of five,” Bajcsy said. “I remember a teacher explaining to me what a square number was when I was seven, and I drew a picture explaining how to simplify what it means.”
Nahrstedt, a part of her family’s next generation, remembers growing up around several electrical engineers.
“My mother, father, uncle, aunt – everyone was an electrical engineer,” she said.
All these people encouraged her to explore her capabilities within the subject.
During her childhood, one moment more than most others still stands out to her about an early inspiration in computing. Also growing up in Czechoslovakia, Nahrstedt remembers the first computers that came into the country were from Russia during the 1960s.
Her father, an educator in electrical engineering, used the computers for his work. Nahrstedt not only used those computers, but she can recall the algorithms it used were primarily about geography – asking about the capital cities for any number of European countries.
She would then enter in the correct answers and the computer would communicate a bit about the capital.
“This was a very good beginning for me, as it sparked my interest in computers, while my education was still grounded in physics and mathematics,” Nahrstedt said.
Still, they faced many challenges to become the academicians they are now.
Bajcsy said that there were severe limitations placed on women in the family’s home country that was under socialist rule. Although the government wouldn’t eliminate the chance for women to educate themselves, they did place restrictions on how many could access education.
It took her five years to graduate to high school when it should’ve taken her four years. And of the roughly 300 female students that she started college with, there were only four that finished.
There was also stigmatization behind being a woman studying engineering.
“We were ridiculed, and we were doubted. But you have to be strong,” Bajcsy said. “In so many ways, the onus is on the parents. There are a lot of programs that do great things to involve kids in math and science, but there should be programs for mothers, too. They can influence their daughters about math being fun.
“Young girls should know that programming is fun and creative, and they shouldn’t be afraid of a screwdriver.”
Nahrstedt agreed that the challenges each faced were daunting but overcome through confidence in their own capabilities.
That mindset has paid off in so many ways.
She is not only a professor but also director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory within The Grainger College of Engineering.
And, over the course of her 26-year path in academia, Nahrstedt earned many professional distinctions, including the IEEE Communication Society Leonard Abraham Award for Research Achievements, the 2012 IEEE Computer Society Technical Achievement Award, the 2014 ACM Special Interest Group on Multimedia (SIGMM) Technical Achievement Award, the 2018 Robert Piloty Prize, among much more.
Her research spans topics from communication networks to mobile computing and communication; from tele-immersive systems to video systems; and much more in between. She has co-authored two textbooks and authored an online book.
“It’s hard for female researchers for many reasons – expectations and pressures imparted on us by those around us,” Nahrstedt said. “But to know you have a support network, there to encourage you and support you, that can help a young woman develop so much confidence. For me, I would just suggest to anyone who can – be encouraging.
“I learned that because of my mother, and through it I quickly believed I could do whatever I put my mind to.”