Tag Archives: wednesday geek woman

Annie Jump Cannon sitting at her desk

Wednesday Geek Woman: Annie Jump Cannon, astronomer and leader in stellar classification

This is a guest post by kim. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2009.

Annie Jump Cannon sitting at her deskA good place to start in honoring women is the Smithsonian’s Women in Science gallery. Sure, it’s got pix of Marie Curie, of whom everyone has heard. But it also has pix of many women engineers, scientists, and science educators who are not as well known, but who should be.

I choose to honor Annie Jump Canon (1863-1941), luminary in astronomical research and stellar classification. Although living in a time deeply ambivalent (if not hostile) to advanced education for women, and suffering from profound hearing impairment after a teenage bout with scarlet fever Annie graduated from Wellsely College in 1884 with a degree in physics. She returned there for graduate studies in physics and astronomy, eventually gaining an MA in 1907. During her time at Wellsley she was hired by the Harvard College Observatory, and along with several other women, paid a pittance (less than a Harvard secretary) to assist Edward Pickering to compile the Draper Catalog, a massive, annotated atlas of all the stars in the sky.

While she was part of this project (itsef funded by Anna Draper, a wealthy widow of an amateur astronomer), Annie was instrumental in defining the spectral classification system, which defines the star classes O, B, F, G, K, and M – a system based on stellar temperature that along with later enhancements is still used today. Annie’s personal work included extensive cataloging of variable stars, including 300 for which she is credited as discoverer, and classifying over 230,000 stellar bodies, the most anyone has defined to this day.

You can read more about Annie and her work at a dedicated memorial at Wellesley’s website. There are other pages about her here, and on Wikipedia.

Annie Jump Cannon examining an objectI close with a quotation from her:

“In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.”

Annie, shine on!

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Countess Ada Lovelace, by the Ada Initiative, CC Zero

Wednesday Geek Women: Moran Paldi, game designer; Leena van Deventer, gaming writing; Catriona Wimberley, medical physics student

This is a guest post by Ben McKenzie. This post appeared on his blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

On Ada Lovelace Day we celebrate women working in technology and science who have inspired us. I have been definitely been inspired by women in science, from the famous like Ada herself and Marie Curie, to more recent heroes like student astrophysicist Amelia Fraser-McKelvie. But I’d like to talk about some of my friends, and in the wake of my participation in a discussion about feminism and games at Cherchez la Femme this month, specifically those working with computers and technology, like Ada did. All are inspiring to me, for their drive, their outlook, and their success, so I thought I would ask them a few questions to find about about them, and their inspiring women, in their own words.

Moran Paldi (ranpal.com.au)

Moran has over a decade of experience in the games industry; now living in Melbourne, she builds and designs video games, and teaches others to do the same. To spend even a few minutes talking games with her is to uncover an incredible depth of knowledge and passion for games in every facet of their existence, from code to controller.

How did you get into the games industry?

I studied mixed media practice at uni in London, originally planning to be an investigative journalist. I got hooked on animation at school and managed to land a job as an animator at a small indie studio when I graduated. Since then I have worked professionally as a games developer at companies like Sega and THQ,  and have now come full circle to back to my independent roots. I also teach at RMIT University on the Games Graphic Design course where I lecture in maths and games design theory.

Why video games? What do you love about this work?

I love the technical and creative challenges that making games presents. They are multilayered digital puzzles, and there’s this cycle of figuring out what you want to do, and then figuring out how to make it happen. They are fractal beasts. The more you explore them the more there is to find. Plus, the technology is always evolving, so you have to keep up with it, and that pushes you. I love exploring the boundaries of what is possible, and finding new ways to tell familiar stories. Oh, and it’s also hella fun.

Who would you be writing about for Ada Lovelace Day?

Obviously Ada! She wrote the worlds first computer program for a then theoretical analytic device. Her work is the basis of modern computing, and she deserves to be better known. Similarly, it was a group of women who built and programmed the ENIAC, which was the first electronic computer, not that you’d know that from most of the histories. Coding used to be considered women’s work, until it became high value. Now it’s perceived as a masculine pursuit. Women in tech have been made invisible for too long now. We need to break that pattern.

Leena van Deventer (grassisleena.com)

Leena is a freelance writer, both for and about games; though she only started eighteen months ago she’s already written for MMGN.com, The Age“s Screen Play blog and a whole bunch of gaming sites, and is co-host of the GamePlayPodcast and the games correspondent for Tech Talk Radio. The first game to be released with her name in the credits will be the seventh Gamebook Adventures title for iOS, Temple of the Spider God.

How did you become a games writer?

I started with a blog, just quietly doing my own thing until people seemed interested in hiring me. I then cast out a net and worked for anyone who would let me, paid or unpaid, for the experience to then make it into a proper job. I went to as many industry events as I could find and talked to as many like-minded individuals as humanly possible. Much scotch was consumed. Oh the scotch. From there I’ve been offered amazing opportunities to work in a field I’m quickly falling head over heels in love with.

Why the love affair?

I love having an opinion. It was always a negative growing up. The over-opinionated only child stereotype was in full flight and it was always treated as a personality flaw. Once I grew up and mellowed a bit I realised I could temper it to be a powerful force – and one that could be capitalised on, at that. Taking what was once considered a flaw in my personality and turning it into a positive, constructive “thing” I had to offer was extremely rewarding, and mirrored my feelings about my favourite pastime. Playing games was always either a little bit geeky, or something only the boys in the street did, or something I was scared to talk about at school for fear of scorn. I love the fact I’m “out” now as someone who loves games so much, and that I can embrace my voice and my opinions about them. The thought of utilising those strong feelings to help make great games one day is something that inspires me immensely. Working in this industry makes me feel less broken.

Who would you write about for Ada Lovelace Day?

Brenda Braithwaite is a powerhouse of a woman – a stalwart of the games industry – who inspires me greatly. She stood up when people were saying that consoles would ruin the games industry and said “That’s bullshit”. She’s now standing up when people say games on social networks will kill the games industry and says “That’s bullshit”. She’s paving the way for many great game developers to come after her and to me that’s a lasting legacy that will stick and is something to be truly proud of. We need people to stand up and say when something is bullshit. Our industry is still in its infancy, and despite that there are many issues ingrained deeply into it. The only way we’re going to move forward and improve on our weaknesses is for people to stand up and say “That’s bullshit” and stop accepting the mediocre. She inspires me to want more from the industry and ask “Can’t we do better?”.

Catriona Wimberley

Catriona is a PhD student in medical physics at the University of Sydney, currently working at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). Though studying science, her career has been heavily entwined with technology, from computer programming to electronic engineering. She’s travelled around Australia and the world to present her work, and was featured in the Cosmos Ultimate Science Guide 2011 for prospective science students.

What are you working on for your PhD?

I’m working on kinetic modelling and parameter estimation in PET (positron emission tomography) imaging. In a nutshell, I take the images/data from scans and do some interesting mathematical modelling to find information about how the body/brain is working, or more importantly, not working, so that we can study how different neurodegenerative disorders (eg. MS or Alzheimers) progress.

How did you reach this point of your career?

A winding path where every opportunity was taken to explore exciting areas of research!

Before finally settling on the area of research I am currently in, I had worked in a biomedical engineering division (doing repair and maintenance of medical equipment), in a cardiology lab, a respiratory lab and a sleep lab (all doing clinical work). These placements helped me realise that I need more than a clinical or repair and maintenance job – I need to be able to think, create, analyse and innovate!

In final year uni, an opportunity came up to do a placement at the Bionic Ear Institute and I jumped at it. It was a great placement, gave me a taste of the research life, I was able to find out how part of the brain works using the computer and programming! But still… before I settled, I knew I needed to explore my other science love: physics.

I applied for the Nuclear Futures graduate program at ANSTO and was accepted into it. This program was what helped me decide that I truly did want to be a researcher. It was a rotational program so I got to work in an engineering project management role creating devices and upgrading safety systems, in the maintenance team for the OPAL research reactor; I wrote computer programs for physicists to interpret their data, I wrote reports about nuclear power for the Australian Government, I designed equipment to improve the quality of medical imaging – and from all of these adventures, I decided I wanted to specialise in medical physics – where else do you get the combination of physics, computing, maths and the end result is figuring out how the brain works?

What drives your passion for science?

I do it because I love finding patterns and meaning in data. I do it because I love programming and I love making programs that work and make life easier for people or elicit information. I do it because I get to think and discover new things about how the world works. I do it because it is fascinating and I couldn’t not do it.

I do it because I am curious and I need to figure things out. I love that I can lose myself in thinking and designing and analysing and interpreting.

Who would you write about for Ada Lovelace Day?

Marie Curie, for her ideas, her hard work and her drive to never give up. My PhD lineage can be traced back to her! Marie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie was also a chemist, and won a Nobel prize in 1935. Irene’s son Pierre Joliot is a biologist and was the PhD supervisor of Marie-Claude Gregoire, who is supervising me.

Also Elizabeth Blackburn [winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine], for showing people that it is possible to have a highly successful science career and have a family.

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Head and shoulders photo of Audrey Tang (self portrait)

Wednesday Geek Woman: Audrey Tang ( 唐鳳), Perl hacker

This is a guest post by Rick Scott, a Canadian philosopher-geek who’s interested in how we can collaborate to make technology work better for everyone. This post appeared on his blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Head and shoulders photo of Audrey Tang (self portrait)Audrey Tang is far and away the most awesome hacker I’ve ever had the privilege to have worked with. She’s best known for creating Pugs, a perl6 implementation in Haskell. Though it’s now semi-retired in favour of the newer implementations that it had a role in inspiring, it represented a huge leap forward and a quantum shift in Perl6 development at a time when enthusiasm around Perl6 was sorely flagging. She was the first CPAN contributor to have uploaded 100 modules. She’s the key figure behind Perl 5′s internationalization, as well as the i18n of many, many other individual pieces of software. She was part of the committee that designed the Haskell 2010 standard, and has made innumerable other contributions to the open source community.

I never got seriously involved with Pugs, but many of the things Audrey did with it shaped my thinking around open source, community, and how we should collaborate. First was the idea that a project should be optimized for fun (-Ofun1), not for control, or strict adherence to the founder’s vision, or anything else. Second, whereas many open source projects keep a very tight rein on who has commit access and make getting a commit bit an arduous process, Audrey aggressively gave out commit bits to anybody who happened to wander by in the general vicinity of Pugs. Got a great idea? Here’s a commit bit, go implement it. Notice something missing in the docs? Here’s a commit bit; go add it. Ranting in IRC that something’s not working? Here’s a commit bit; go fix it. Extending this trust makes people feel welcome and want to contribute. It fosters an air of community instead of making prospective new participants feel as though they are looking at climbing (or worse, building) a pyramid.

Audrey would likely demur at my calling her brilliant, but it’s a fitting descriptor for her. She has a unique and penetrating insight into code and an uncanny knack for encouraging the people who write it. I count myself as fortunate to have been able to work with her and to be part of a few of the communities she’s had such a profound impact on.


1 -Ofun: -O is the compiler option that tells it how you want your code optimized. Audrey’s presentation on -Ofun [pdf] talks more about how to maximize the amount of fun in your software project.

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Wednesday Geek Woman submission thread: December

This is a submissions thread for Wednesday Geek Woman series of profiles. Submit your profile of a geek woman in (hidden) comments here and selected ones will be posted (perhaps lightly edited). Here’s what to include:

  1. Optional: a quick one sentence bio paragraph about yourself, with any links you want. For example: Mary is a humble geek blogger and you can find her at <a href=”http://geekfeminism.org/”>geekfeminism.org</a&gt;Notes:
    • if this bio line is missing, you will be assumed to want to be anonymous. This applies even if you put a name and URL in the comment field.
    • don’t feel pressured into revealing things about yourself you don’t want to. A pseudonymous, mysterious, vague or simple bio is fine.
  2. Compulsory: two or more parapraphs describing your geek woman, ideally including why you admire her in particular.
  3. Optional: links to her biography, her Wikipedia page, and so on.
  4. Optional: agreement that your post can be used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (posts that have this can be used in the Geek Feminism wiki).

See previous posts for examples.

Here’s a form you could copy and paste into comments:

My bio (one sentence only, optional):

Name or pseudonym of the geek woman I am submitting:

A few words summarising the woman’s geek accomplishments (for example “AI researcher” or “discoverer of supernova” or “engine mechanic”):

My post about this woman (two or more paragraphs):

Links to this woman elsewhere (optional):

[Please delete this line if you don't agree!] I agree to licence my post under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Criteria. Continue reading

Head and shoulders photo of Margaret Dayhoff

Wednesday Geek Woman: Margaret Dayhoff, quantum chemist and bioinfomaticist

This post appeared on my blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Head and shoulders photo of Margaret Dayhoff

It’s become kind of a cliché for me to claim that the reason I’m happy working on ACPI and UEFI and similarly arcane pieces of convoluted functionality is that no matter how bad things are there’s at least some form of documentation and there’s a well-understood language at the heart of them. My PhD was in biology, working on fruitflies. They’re a poorly documented set of layering violations which only work because of side-effects at the quantum level, and they tend to die at inconvenient times. They’re made up of 165 million bases of a byte code language that’s almost impossible to bootstrap[1] and which passes through an intermediate representations before it does anything useful[2]. It’s an awful field to try to do rigorous work in because your attempts to impose any kind of meaningful order on what you’re looking at are pretty much guaranteed to be sufficiently naive that your results bear a resemblance to reality more by accident than design.

The field of bioinformatics is a fairly young one, and because of that it’s very easy to be ignorant of its history. Crick and Watson (and those other people) determined the structure of DNA. Sanger worked out how to sequence proteins and nucleic acids. Some other people made all of these things faster and better and now we have huge sequence databases that mean we can get hold of an intractable quantity of data faster than we could ever plausibly need to, and what else is there to know?

Margaret Dayhoff graduated with a PhD in quantum chemistry from Columbia, where she’d performed computational analysis of various molecules to calculate their resonance energies[3]. The next few years involved plenty of worthwhile research that aren’t relevant to the story, so we’ll (entirely unfairly) skip forward to the early 60s and the problem of turning a set of sequence fragments into a single sequence. Dayhoff worked on a suite of applications called “Comprotein”. The original paper can be downloaded here, and it’s a charming look back at a rigorous analysis of a problem that anyone in the field would take for granted these days. Modern fragment assembly involves taking millions of DNA sequence reads and assembling them into an entire genome. In 1960, we were still at the point where it was only just getting impractical to do everything by hand.

This single piece of software was arguably the birth of modern bioinformatics, the creation of a computational method for taking sequence data and turning it into something more useful. But Dayhoff didn’t stop there. The 60s brought a growing realisation that small sequence differences between the same protein in related species could give insight into their evolutionary past. In 1965 Dayhoff released the first edition of the Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, containing all 65 protein sequences that had been determined by then. Around the same time she developed computational methods for analysing the evolutionary relationship of these sequences, helping produce the first computationally generated phylogenetic tree. Her single-letter representation of amino acids was born of necessity[4] but remains the standard for protein sequences. And the atlas of 65 protein sequences developed into the Protein Information Resource, a dial-up database that allowed researchers to download the sequences they were interested in. It’s now part of UniProt, the world’s largest protein database.

Her contributions to the field were immense. Every aspect of her work on bioinformatics is present in the modern day — larger, faster and more capable, but still very much tied to the techniques and concepts she pioneered. And so it still puzzles me that I only heard of her for the first time when I went back to write the introduction to my thesis. She’s remembered today in the form of the Margaret Oakley Dayhoff award for women showing high promise in biophysics, having died of a heart attack at only 57.

I don’t work on fruitflies any more, and to be honest I’m not terribly upset by that. But it’s still somewhat disconcerting that I spent almost 10 years working in a field so defined by one person that I knew so little about. So my contribution to Ada Lovelace Day is to highlight a pivotal woman in science who heavily influenced my life without me even knowing.

[1] You think it’s difficult bringing up a compiler on a new architecture? Try bringing up a fruitfly from scratch.
[2] Except for the cases where the low-level language itself is functionally significant, and the cases where the intermediate representation is functionally significant.
[3] Something that seems to have involved a lot of putting punch cards through a set of machines, getting new cards out, and repeating. I’m glad I live in the future.
[4] The three-letter representation took up too much space on punch cards

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history_calkins

Wednesday Geek Women: Mary Whiton Calkins and Elizabeth Spelke, psychological scientists

This is a guest post by Shauna, a psychologist, programmer, writer and blogger. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

For Ada Lovelace day I thought I’d go back to my roots and write about a psychological scientist. Being as I am prone to digressions, I ended up writing about two – one historical, one current. We’ll go chronologically.

Mary Whiton Calkins was born in the 1860s in Connecticut who studied classics and philosophy at Smith College. She took a job teaching Greek at Wellesley College after graduating, where by a combination of luck and talent she caught the eye of a psychology professor. He asked her to come teach psychology, but requested she spend a year studying it first. It was in this way that Calkins started taking classes at Harvard, and with William James himself among her tutors and mentors, it’s maybe not surprising that her interest in the field grew. She spent the next two years taking classes at Harvard and doing research into dreams with collaborator Edmund Sanford. Though their research would soon be eclipsed by Sigmund Freud (who did acknowledge and cite their work), their discovery that dream content could be influenced by external stimuli is much in line with our current theories of dreams.

In 1891 she returned to Wellesley to teach, and established there an experimental psychology laboratory, the first of its kind at any women’s college and only the twelfth in the United States. Over the next ten years, she trained hundreds of women in experimental psychology, putting out articles on subjects such as child development, aesthetics, and synesthesia. Hoping to continue her studies at Harvard, she also petitioned the university to become a graduate student, but the college did not allow female graduate students at the time and she was refused. Nevertheless, she continued to take classes, and three years later an unsanctioned committee of six Harvard professors awarded her an unofficial doctorate. Despite numerous petitions over the last 100+ years, Harvard has never awarded her an official one.

Calkins’ biggest research contribution is probably her work on paired association, a memory technique that is still used today. My favorite work of hers, though, is Community of Ideas of Men and Women, an article she published in 1891 in Psychological Review in response to one Dr. Joseph Jastrow. Jastrow had looked at lists of words generated by women and men, and claimed then men showed greater variety in word choice. This, he said, was evidence for the “Variability Hypothesis” – the theory that men have a greater range of abilities than women, with more men than women falling at the high and low ends of any given spectrum. Calkins and her student Cordelia Nevins replicated Jastrow’s study but not his results, and in their paper called into question the fundamental assumptions of his research:

[Jastrow et al] by the expression “masculine and feminine mental traits,’ attempt a distinction between masculine and feminine intellect per se, and this seems to me futile and impossible, because of our entire inability to eliminate the effect of environment. Now the differences in the training and tradition of men and women begin with the earliest months of infancy and continue through life. Most of the preferences which have been substantiated by both experimenters, for instance that of women .for the surroundings of a home, are obviously cultivated interests… The question of the essential difference between masculine and feminine mind seems to me, therefore, untouched by such an investigation.

Unlike the good scientists of that era, the Variability Hypothesis is not dead and buried. You may remember back in 2005 a controversy breaking out when Harvard’s then-president Larry Summers speculated in a speech that underrepresentation of women in science in general, and in tenured positions at top-tier universities such as Harvard in particular, might be due to innate differences between men and women. Specifically, he suggested that men have greater variability in mathematical ability than woman, leaving them overrepresented at the highest echelons (as well as in the lowest mathematical gutters.)

In response to this controversy, the Harvard psychology department set out to debate that claim on its merits. Summers’ claims were defended by Steven Pinker, a well known linguist and evolutionary psychologist, who faced off against Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist whose done a great deal of research on gender differences in children. From the debate:

Let me take you on a whirlwind tour of 30 years of research in one powerpoint slide. From birth, babies perceive objects. They know where one object ends and the next one begins. They can’t see objects as well as we can, but as they grow their object perception becomes richer and more differentiated.

Babies also start with rudimentary abilities to represent that an object continues to exist when it’s out of view, and they hold onto those representations longer, and over more complicated kinds of changes, as they grow. Babies make basic inferences about object motion: inferences like, the force with which an object is hit determines the speed with which it moves. These inferences undergo regular developmental changes over the infancy period.

In each of these cases, there is systematic developmental change, and there’s variability. Because of this variability, we can compare the abilities of male infants to females. Do we see sex differences? The research gives a clear answer to this question: We don’t.

I recommend reading or watching the whole thing, and/or reading Spelke’s more formal review of the literature in American Psychologist. I particularly like Spelke’s point at the end, when she talks about the role of competition in science:

You’ve suggested, as a hypothesis, that because of sexual selection and also parental investment issues, men are selected to be more competitive, and women are selected to be more nurturant. Suppose that hypothesis is true… What makes for better motives in a scientist?

What kind of motives are more likely to lead to good science: Competitive motives, like the motive J. D. Watson described in The Double Helix, to get the structure of DNA before Linus Pauling did? Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton has described recently to explain why he’s going into stem cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? I think it’s anything but clear how motives from our past translate into modern contexts.

Calkins went on to teach psychology for forty more years and in 1918 became the first woman president of the American Psychological Association. Spelke continues her child development research as a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Information on Mary Whiton Calkins was gathered from Feminist Voices, Webster’s Women’s Contributions page, and of course, Wikipedia.

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Stylised atom, showing nucleus and electrons

Wednesday Geek Woman: Mahananda Dasgupta, nuclear fusion researcher

This post appeared on Lecta and Hoyden About Town for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Mahananda Dasgupta is a professor in the Department of Nuclear Physics at the Australian National University. Dasgupta’s research takes place at the heavy-ion accelerator facility and investigates quantum tunnelling when heavy nuclei collide. Her Pawsey Medal award in 2006 cites cutting-edge contributions includ[ing] precision measurements of unprecedented accuracy.

Dasgupta moved to Australia from India for a postdoctoral position in the 1990s, and eventually was appointed to a tenured position in 2003. She became the first woman to hold a tenured position in the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the ANU in its entire 50+ years of existence! (I was very surprised to find this, the School must be enormous in terms of academic staff, it comprises nine research departments.)

How do we retain that female workforce [in science]?

By strong and meaningful mentoring, which doesn’t just mean a quick meeting once a month or web-based mentoring, but real mentors who encourage women or younger people to devise strategies about how best to use their time, and what roles to apply for to advance their career.

Every person at that early stage needs support. We need to champion women scientifically – not “she’s a good person”, but “she’s an excellent physicist who’s done this great work”… Equally, the employers’ responsibility to provide childcare is very important… If we are expanding and building infrastructure – why are we not building childcare facilities?

I was educated in India where, if a student is sharp, they’re encouraged to show it through participating in discussions or taking on extra-educational activities… It does strike me that in Australia we give a lot of kudos to those who excel in sports, but if you excel in studies you are a dork, particularly among other students… Sometimes, following talks I give in schools, students come to the carpark to ask me science questions, rather than asking them in front of the class… How do we get away from that? I believe that to make real long-term progress we must respect and encourage intellectual achievements.

Mahananda Dasgupta, The Conversation: So seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?

Dasgupta is active both in advocating careers in science in general, volunteering herself as a science careers lecturer at schools, and in speaking on behalf of women in science. In 2004 she was the Woman in Physics Lecturer for the year, and in 2011 she represented the Group of Eight universities (the eight universities that consider themselves Australia’s best research universities) at a Women in Science and Engineering summit at Parliament House. Her 2011 Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellowship from the Australian Research Council calls upon her to increase the profile of Women in Science through outreach activities, and work towards advancing early career researchers as well as facilitate leadership pathways for senior women researchers.

Recognition Dasgupta has received for her work includes:

  • the Australian Academy of Sciences’ Pawsey Medal in 2006, for outstanding work in physics by a scientist under 40
  • her election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2011
  • an Australian Laureate Fellowship in 2011

I can’t embed them in the post for licencing reasons, but David Hine has a couple of photos of Dasgupta with her experimental equipment: Dr Mahananda Dasgupta and Dr Mahananda Dasgupta and Dr David Hinde.

References

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Stata computer science building on the MIT campus

Wednesday Geek Woman: Anne Street, president of the MIT alumni association

This is a guest post by kim. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

I met Anne back in the ’80s, when we both worked for an engineering firm specializing in infrastructure. She has a dazzling technical background, with multiple degrees from MIT, at a time when women MIT graduates were few and far between. Her specialty then was business development for applied engineering, and she took me under her wing as she made her rounds of the nuclear industry and associated Government and research entities.

Anne taught me a lot. There’s the obvious – how to read and answer Government requests for proposals. And there’s the not-so-obvious. How to engage engineering vision. How to distill the musings of the stratosphere-inhabiting set and transmit their thoughts to non-tech folk, without being didactic or condescending. How to be the only (or almost only) woman in a field dominated by men; taking neither nonsense nor prisoners, but doing so by subverting from within rather than wasting energy on pointless direct confrontation. How to lead the unwilling. How to build a team of people who might not be happy about putting in after hours and weekend work; shaping them so that in the end they were damned proud that their output was of the highest quality, because that way all the overtime was a badge of honor, and not wasted effort.

Through all of this ran a wicked sense of humor. She held a wake when a particularly large and desperately desired potential opportunity came in as a loss – complete with black balloons, a model coffin, and wilted flowers. The telephone play of her convincing the florist that she WANTED dead, droopy flowers was priceless. Her parties were legendary: Tinkertoys as icebreakers; mystery role playing gatherings; just the things to make totally unconnected creative folk from many walks of life unwind together, even though they had just met as strangers. I still have the glass lampwork beads and jewelry we made. Three houses and 20 years later – her daylilies still bloom in my yard. And I’m still writing engineering proposals.

But most of all Anne was always the epitome of encouragement. There was no field, no technical arena, no bit of knowledge too arcane to tunnel into and to share. She taught me to step aside and engage the brain when I read, to assess not only face value content, but possible sub rosa influences; and to always look for the proof or the root cause. And that in the end, everything can be researched because there is no priesthood. Women and men without tech degrees can through curiosity, enthusiasm and perseverance, always find meaningful and substantiated data.

Anne today is president of the MIT alumni association, where I am sure she’s using connections and influence to further the cause.

Way to go, Anne!

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Detail of circuit board

Wednesday Geek Woman: Sandra K. Johnson: parallel processing expert

This post appeared on my blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Dr. Sandra K. Johnson (also known as Sandra Johnson Baylor) got interested in electrical engineering through an invitation to go to a high school summer camp program at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge. At the time, she thought engineering was all about “driving a train” but she decided she’d go anyway and get out of town for the summer. She loved engineering camp and went back to Southern to get her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and ultimately went on to become the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the United States.

While working as a researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Lab, Dr. Johnson worked on the prototype of the SP2 processor for IBM’s “Deep Blue” chess machine, as well as a variety of topics in the extraordinarily difficult field of highly parallel computing, including memory and IO behavior of parallel programs, cache coherence protocols, scalable shared-memory systems, and the Vesta Parallel File System. (If you’re looking for her publications, many of her papers are published under the name S. J. Baylor.) She held a number of high-ranking positions at IBM, including Linux Performance Architect, and managing the Linux Performance team.

Ironically, Dr. Johnson is currently working as an IBM business development executive in the United Arab Emirates, a relatively progressive country next door to Saudi Arabia, where she is not allowed to drive, among other highly discriminatory laws against women.Often when people claim we have already achieved legal gender equality (in their own country, of course), they forget that science, technology, and business are global activities, and career advancement often depends on working in several different countries. [Correction: The original said women weren't allowed to drive in UAE, which was me confusing Saudi Arabia with UAE.]

Sandra Johnson’s books are representative of her career: She was editor in chief of Linux Performance Tuning, author of Inspirational Nuggets, which encourages people to reach their full potential, as well as co-author with her brother of Gregory: Life of a Lupus Warrior, about her brother’s fight with lupus (Sandra was subsequently diagnosed with a non-life threatening form of lupus). Dr. Johnson is a combination of intellectual powerhouse and kind mentor. She’s on her way to the top, and she wants to bring other women (and especially women of color) along with her.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Johnson at the Grace Hopper women in computing conference in 2010, and I was deeply impressed. She was not only intelligent and competent, but incredibly supportive of other women. Dr. Johnson on how to become an IEEE fellow (or get any other award): It’s not magic, you have to tell your friends and mentors, “I want to be an IEEE fellow,” and then get someone to take responsibility for bugging your friends to write letters to nominate you. Don’t feel bad about asking for recognition, that’s just how it works.

Sandra Johnson is also a public speaker, with booking information on her web site. I highly recommend her as a speaker. She’s clear, informative, and inspirational in a practical and realistic way. If you get a chance to see her speak, jump at it! Personally, I hope I get to meet Dr. Johnson again.

So, next time someone says there aren’t any women in electrical engineering or processor design, you can pipe up with, “Oh, I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Dr. Sandra Johnson! She did all kinds of work on parallel processors and cache coherency for highly parallel systems and, oh yeah, the Vespa parallel file system too. She even worked on the prototype for IBM’s Deep Blue! Did you know she was also the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the U.S.? Right now she’s working in the Middle East, can you believe that irony? If you ever get the chance to see her speak, take it!”

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Facepalm: person clutching their face

Wednesday Geek Woman: unnamed complainant at JavaOne

This is a guest post by Laura James, an engineer based in Cambridge UK, and the founder of Makespace, a non-profit building a community workshop where you’ll be able to build or fix almost anything. This post appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

This year, I’m going with a topical woman in technology from the lovely DevChix community. I’m not sure if she’d want to be named; but she stood up and asked for an apology after a male speaker made a sexist joke at a major tech conference (JavaOne) recently. She also made sure the organisers heard about it, and they apologised and will follow up with the speaker’s company.  But in some quarters she’s been criticised for making men in the audience uncomfortable – but she’s still an inspiration.

It’s depressing that these things are still happening (and that the joke reportedly got a good laugh). But raising awareness helps others understand that such incidents are offputting to women in technology The lovely ladies at GeekFeminism provide great resources – they too should be celebrated today.

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This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Want to highlight a geek woman? Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.