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'Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories From Illinois'

9/27/2018 11:29:41 AM

Between the point in 1879 when Mary Louisa Page became the first woman to graduate from the University of Illinois College of Engineering and 1905, four women earned degrees from the college.

But between those early decades and 2016, when 47 percent of the incoming freshmen in the Department of Computer Science were women, numerous influential women earned degrees from the college and helped shape its future. A new book tells the stories of 12 of them.

“Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories From Illinois,” by Laura D. Hahn and Angela S. Wolters.
“Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories From Illinois,” by Laura D. Hahn and Angela S. Wolters.
and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories From Illinois” was written by Laura D. Hahn, the director of the university’s Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education, and Angela S. Wolters, director of Women in Engineering for the university.

The book includes stories of key figures from Computer Science, among them Google Director of Engineering for Chrome Parisa Tabriz, PhD graduate and former Adjunct Teaching Professor Cinda Heeren – who wrote her own reflections on computing and teaching -- and Professor Geneva Belford.

"Geneva was tough and practical, yet energetic and generous with her time,” said one of Belford’s most well-known students, C3 IoT CEO and founder Thomas M. Siebel.

The book is available from the University of Illinois Press. The authors also invite readers to follow as more stories of women engineers are posted at the college’s Women in Engineering website.

Excerpts from the book:

Geneva Belford

1932-20l4, PhD Math ‘60

She advised more than 140 graduate students, and toward the end of her career, she helped scores of additional students through her role as the graduate

Geneva Belford
Geneva Belford
program coordinator in the CS Department.

According to CS Professor Roy Campbell, Geneva was unique because she regularly advised masters-level students while most faculty members preferred working with doctoral-level candidates. "She was always very welcoming and provided support for many students [interested] in distributed systems and networking,” Campbell said. “She also took on a few atypical students, who didn't have a CS background.”

One of those students was Tom Siebel (BA History, 1975), who entered the CS master's program in 1983 while working on an MBA at Illinois. He earned his MS in CS in 1985 and went on to found Siebel Systems, a customer relationship management (CRM) firm that was later acquired by Oracle for $5.8 billion. In 2014, Siebel described his CS experience as a life-changing event. "Geneva was tough and practical, yet energetic and generous with her time,” Siebel said in a video tribute to his advisor when she won a 2012 CS department service award. "She encouraged exploration, experimentation and creativity. She was an important catalyst in my professional career.”

Cinda Heeren

Senior instructor in Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, PhD CS ‘04

“I've loved computing for decades but my perceptions of the craft of designing algorithms and writing code have changed in a very subtle way in just the last few years. …

“A few years

Cinda Heeren
Cinda Heeren
ago, partly because I missed my Grammy, I picked up my knitting needles and searched for a project of appropriate scope and beauty. What I found instead was a connection to computing that I didn’t expect: the language paradigms used to describe knitting patterns and procedures (are) composed of exactly the same elements as that of C++ or Python or any other modern computing language. Iteration, abstraction, conditionals, and the stitches themselves form a configuration analogous to some kind of data structure. I am not the first one to have made this observation, but it has created in me a new sensitivity to the ways in which handcraft is communicated, and most poignantly, it reinforces the idea that computing constructs are more general in their application to computing devices.

“Somewhat later, in the summer of 2013, I spent one day in a textile museum in Guatemala City, Guatemala. My earlier observations about the knitting patterns were reinforced, and I was increasingly touched, because the art of weaving is hundreds of years old and yet the handicraft itself illustrates these same computing constructs. …

“The computing of today has its roots in traditions of handcraft, art, and music, and the minute we all admit that fact, we have the ability to break down barriers. With this in mind, I will infuse my teaching with these connections and broaden the historical view of our field, primarily because I do not want artificial barriers to participation. Besides, arts and crafts are beautiful and expressive and human.”

Parisa Tabriz

Google Director of Engineering for Chrome, BS CS ’04, MS ‘06

When she needed to print business cards for a security conference she was attending in Japan, she chose Security Princess … not because Parisa is "the princess type" -- she's practical and down-to-earth -- but because it was “cute and a bit more whimsical.” There's irony there, too. Parisa proudly acknowledges being a woman in a field dominated by men. …

Parisa Tabriz
Parisa Tabriz

Forbes included her on its 2013 “30 under 30” list of tech pioneers, Wired named her to the 2017 List of 20 Tech Visionaries who are Creating the Future, “CBS This Morning” has profiled her, and she's been featured in the popular media. Even so, she wasn't always confident in her role as a woman engineer. “I wasn't secure in college,” she reflects. “I switched majors. ... Every semester was like, 'Is this worth it? Am I doing this?' And I think women struggle with that [uncertainty] much more.”

By candidly sharing her college and career experiences, Paris a hopes to dispel some of the myths she feels exist about studying computer science and finding careers in high tech. “I didn't have this passion or this drive to know what I wanted to do, and I also didn't start programming until my freshman year. It's a myth that you need to have been doing this since childhood.”