An Interview with Computer Science Professor Dr. Rebecca Wright

This summer, while at the NJ Governor’s School for Engineering and Technology, I was able to meet one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Rebecca Wright. After the program ended, I was also able to interview Dr. Wright about her experiences and insight into engineering. Dr. Wright is both a professor and researcher at Rutgers University for computer science, cyber security, and communications security. She attended Columbia University for her Bachelor’s degree and Yale University for her Ph.D.

As a little girl, both of her parents went to MIT and she was surrounded by female engineers. She was raised thinking that this was the norm, and that there were a decent number of women working in STEM fields. In fact, those women that she was surrounded by were a vast majority of female engineers and scientists in the world. Nevertheless, they collectively influenced Dr. Wright’s early decision to work in the computer science field. In high school, she chose computer science over playing the piano, deeming musical skills something that she needed more inherent talent for and engineering skills something more practical that she could work hard towards.

And indeed, a computer science degree was a hard major to work towards. I, based on my dramatically mind-exploding experiences in calculus, felt obliged to ask if the majority of the math classes she took in college were inapplicable to her current research and career. Dr. Wright admitted that the certain theoretical math classes were not useful, but the math learned from computer science classes was very important. In her first year of college, the discrete math requisite is what thoroughly fascinated and solidified her passion for computer science.

One of Dr. Wright’s most recent research projects focuses on human mobility modeling. Cellular networks provide the necessary data. She inferred home and work locations from each caller ID to create a model of users and their call behavior. Then, she created synthetic users with their calls based on the model. It effectively reproduced the real life population density distributions. The second project examined privacy on social media. Dr. Wright introduced a concept called side channels— information channels that are secondary to the intended communication channel but convey additional relevant information.

To examine side channels, Dr. Wright created an experimental Facebook account and discovered many “loopholes” or side channels that revealed information intended to be blocked (ie. friends’ restrictions). She conducted a survey to determine user awareness and concern about these side channels. One survey question asked if the user was aware that edit history was visible to anyone who can see the post. This type of research enables Dr. Wright to find and solve cyber security problems.

Outside of research, Dr. Wright has been to several leadership summits in Europe, China, Malaysia, Israel, etc. Communication, above all, is key. Thus, in response to my mentioning of the stereotype that engineers are bad writers, Dr. Wright laughed and stated that whether it was true or not, writing is crucial to engineering; after all, the discovery or invention is worthless
without effective communication.

As for personal advice, she underscored the work required to pursue such a career. Speaking from the experience of rushing to finish a research paper, completing arduous and sometimes arcane math classes, and many sleepless nights, Dr. Wright was sure to remind me that the path to becoming an engineer was not nearly as easy as she made it out to be. Laughing, I stated that I had and would never underestimate the effort.

Sir James Dyson: ‘It’s sexist to say that women and girls don’t ‘do’ engineering’

“To encourage girls to get inventing, we need to do more reveal a true picture of engineering at a young age. Between the ages of seven and nine, children develop the key critical reasoning skills essential to engineering. It is during this time that they should be inspired and exposed to hands on making and doing, at school and home.”

[ via The Telegraph ]

Is Sailing for the STEMinist?

Editor’s note: Nicole Trennholm is a scientist on the Ocean Research Project and is currently aboard the Japan-bound Sakura. She is periodically sending updates from sea:

“Hey lady, wake up! It’s noon and the sun is strong and winds are still squirrelly…it is time for your watch!” the Skipper shouts with a goofy grin while poking you.

The time has come to be diligent, your conscience confirms. The boat is yours: take charge, it’s time to let the other guy get some rest. You notice your muscles have cramped as you pull yourself upright and out of your bunk. You think back to your previous watch, and how sleepy you were when looking out for squally powerful and wind stealing rain clouds. You still have anxiety for having had to call out the sleeping Skipper from his bunk to help you get back on course after an accidental jibe – where the boom accidentally swings violently to the other side as the wind gusts from the opposite direction – and a second time to lend a hand in reducing sail as the wind picked up when a suspect dark cloud passed closer than expected.

Yet it is these experiences that develop the able sailor. A little after sunrise you plotted the daily 24-hour position on the passage chart. You are traveling west onboard the sailing research yacht Sakura bound for Japan and have cruised into the Eastern Hemisphere. You are well into the Pacific Ocean, looking out for dangers to navigation and assessing the risk of vessels on a collision course, easy to manage on a day like this and considering a ship has not been spotted in well over a week.

It’s hour one of four; your ship’s log is your companion and official record so you routinely mark it up to watch for red flags such as: quick changes in barometric pressure, unexpected developments in the weather and sea state, erratic navigation details and peculiarities in the state of the ship’s systems. Staying sheltered, cool and hydrated is critical so you keep inside the cabin, out of the sun. You are able to fill any downtime with easily interrupted activities like reading, all while keeping an eye on the ship’s ability to steer its designated course. You are busy surviving. Your focus and commitment for those four hours is to safely run the ship, guard the lives on it and be prepared to brief the relief watch person on the current conditions.

I am currently aboard the Sakura bound for Japan. I am a scientist on the Ocean Research Project (ORP) team and am aspiring to become an able sailor. I utilize and practice STEM tools not only as a sailor but also to plan and conduct the ORP’s continent-to-continent Plastic Pollution Survey, the impetus for our passage which began April 25 out of San Francisco. We are collecting plastic pollution samples all the way across and both in and outside of gyre systems (large areas of circulatory current where plastic assembles) to better understand its ocean-wide effect on the marine environment.

Would you voluntarily enter into this trying environment, challenging your STEM skill set while developing another in sailing, a skill set our modern first world culture does not stress as part of your development? Sailing teaches the endurance and patience necessary to develop your survival sense by providing an ever-changing classroom and demanding an adaptive, solution-minded pupil. Sailing requires survival sense, a vanishing primal human capacity and a combination of mental, emotional and physical strength.

To negotiate your obstacles while navigating, handle a catastrophic event onboard or even continuously maintain satisfactory conditions of your shipmates and ship systems requires great discipline and composure. To experience an eventless watch is unlikely and to uphold order indefinitely aboard a sailing passage is an ongoing battle but through the accretion of experiences you will undoubtedly develop your survival sense. You already have the tools STEM disciplines have equipped you with which may prove to be your greatest assets when aspiring to become an able sailor.

Chart: This is how bad the gender gap is at tech companies

“Women make up less than 40 percent of the workforce at Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter, and no more than one-fifth of the technical workforce at those companies.”

[ via GeekWire ]

Nearly 40 percent of women leave engineering

“Over the course of 3 years, psychologists Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, surveyed more than 5000 women with engineering degrees. About 11% of those women never took on an engineering job. Another 27% left the field after taking a job.”

[ via The Guardian ]

STEMinist Profile: Linda Ratliff, CNC Machinist

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Linda Ratliff

CNC Machinist

Aventics


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
It was inevitable really, given the sheer number of engineers in my family–my father, both grandfathers, brother, and a cousin all ended up in STEM fields. My brother had been through the machining program at our local vo-tech school, and it looked like so much much fun. My art degree wasn’t doing much for me career wise, so I took the plunge and went back to school for something more employable that I would still enjoy doing.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My coolest project was probably in school–we designed and machined turtles using some model stock donated by a local business. Drawing the 3D model and watching it come to life was super exciting, especially with all those curves.

At work I primarily make parts for the various pneumatic devices we make, and I must say, the sheer variety of products we make is astounding. I have made parts that go on fire trucks, railroad cars, medical devices, and more.

Role models and heroes:
My brother and my parents were really influential. While the guys are both engineers, my mom also worked as a lab tech before she had us kids, so I’ve always had role models right in front of me.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
I love how at the end of the day I have a physical result of my work, and that the parts I run could be instrumental in saving a life one day. Also, I really enjoy the bragging rights of having the knowledge to run extremely complicated machinery and make precision parts. I mean, most people don’t even know what a lathe or mill is, much less know how to run one. While my job doesn’t currently require programming, I have the knowledge to do so, and knowing that I have the ability, given time and equipment, to make ANYTHING is really awesome.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Haters gonna hate. Seriously, do what you want, be who you are, and don’t let anyone tell you can’t do something because you’re a girl. If you want to be a scientist, be a scientist. If you want to be a machinist, be a machinist. You don’t have to give up who you are to pursue a STEM career.

Favorite website or app:
It’s so hard to pick a favorite, but I do love Boggle the Owl (http://boggletheowl.tumblr.com/) and really have too much in common with the Bloggess (http://thebloggess.com/).

 

Six Developer Bootcamps Helping to Close Tech Gender Gap

It’s no secret that women are largely underrepresented in the software engineering field and the numbers don’t lie: women make up only around 20% of the computer programming world. In the US, plenty of organizations are attempting (and succeeding) in drumming up interest in STEM subjects among K-12 classes. Many of these, like Girls Who Code, are working hard to generate interest with specifically younger girls. But how can we encourage women to start mastering programming skills or even switch careers after they graduate from high school? Developer bootcamps are one of the most popular and disruptive trends in education today – let’s take a look at how these immersive bootcamps may fit into the puzzle and solve some of this gender disparity.

No Boys Allowed
Two coding bootcamps in the US exist exclusively for women: Ada Development Academy and Hackbright Academy. Their primary teaching languages, tuition costs and curriculum differ, but both share the same overarching goal: to train female software developers and close the existing gender gap.

Ada Development Academy
Ada Lovelace is widely regarded as the world’s “first programmer,” so it’s only fitting that the Ada Development Academy take their name from the famed female mathematician. Ada is based in Seattle and offers a 24-week intensive curriculum, followed by an internship in the tech community. During this class time, students learn HTML/CSS, JavaScript and Ruby on Rails. Ada cites the wide gender gap in Washington state (85% of programmers in the state are male) as their impetus for training women to be software engineers, and perhaps the most enticing and unique feature at Ada is that tuition is free!

Hackbright Academy
Move a bit further down the West Coast to find Hackbright Academy, based in San Francisco. As a 12-week program, Hackbright is modeled after the more traditional coding bootcamp structure, but stands out with it’s commitment to boosting female engagement in tech and because they’ve chosen to teach Python as opposed to Ruby.

While some critics have commented that female-only schools don’t reflect the real world, Hackbright alum Siena Aguayo feels “that completely misses the point of all-female engineering schools in the first place. I feel like we’re really changing things- people are talking about the problem of women in tech a lot more. And that opens the door to talking about racial diversity and income disparity as well. (…) Hackbright graduated more female engineers than both Stanford and Berkeley combined this last year.”

Tuition at Hackbright Academy is $15,000, although students who accept jobs with companies in the Hackbright hiring network get a refund of $3k.

Scholarships
Not every school is exclusively female, but many bootcamps offer scholarships to women in order to boost applications and create more balanced cohorts.

1. Dev Bootcamp is one of the most established coding bootcamps in the US, and has led the charge in many ways in encouraging women to apply. Most recently, they partnered with Girl Develop It to offer $2500 scholarships to 10 women who are active members of GDI in New York. Dev Bootcamp also partners with the Levo Scholars program to give partial scholarships to women in their quest for gender parity.

2. Codeup is a 12-week school in San Antonio, Texas that teaches the LAMP stack along with JavaScript and jQuery. Each cohort, they offer 3 scholarships to women for 50% off tuition in order to level the playing field. Regular tuition is around $9,000

3. The Iron Yard awards two $1500 scholarships per class in order to lower the bar for women who want to break into programming. In addition, Iron Yard makes outreach into the local tech community a priority. Students are required to volunteer at the free kids’ programming camps.

4. Flatiron School in New York offers a scholarships for women who apply- while we aren’t able to pinpoint the exact amount, we’re more excited about the school’s most recent new hire: Sara Chipps is Flatiron School’s new CTO and will head up the newly founded Flatiron Labs, the school’s dev shop that will employ their graduates. Strategic hires like this show that the school is committed to bringing women on in senior positions.

How can you distinguish a bootcamp that’s trying to change the future of technology from one that’s stuck in the past? Look for schools that do outreach in younger communities and with underrepresented minorities. Visit the schools you apply to and meet with their founders or instructors to really understand their values. And once you’re enrolled, be sure to stay involved in your local tech community inspire the next generation of girls to be STEMinists!

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the technology Codeup teaches. It includes the LAMP stack, not Rails. 

Author
Liz Eggleston is a LivingSocial alum and co-founder of Course Report, the online resource for potential students considering a coding bootcamp. Catch up with Liz on Twitter @coursereport and on the Course Report Blog.

Research Survey on Stereotype Threat in STEM

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STEMinist Profile: Nicole Trenholm, Program Director/Field Operations Scientist

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Nicole Trenholm

Program Director/Field Operations Scientist

Ocean Research Project

 



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
It is a deep-rooted passion of mine to embrace STEM throughout my life. I aim to contribute to society by researching the relationship between man and our planet’s oceans and encouraging sustainable solutions to nurture a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
In 2013, I spent 80 days offshore; after 20 some days commuting to my work site, I collected 40 sea surface plastic samples throughout the eastern extent of the North Atlantic Gyre, a Texas size survey. Plastic debris, a concoction of un-natural chemical pollutants, are peppered throughout Earth’s oceans and changing what was once a pristine watery wilderness. It is the toxicity absorbed in the material being exchanged between marine species to people and its impact on human health that scares me. I am sailing for science but for the betterment of all parties within the biosphere.

Role models and heroes: Benjamin Franklin, Ida Lewis, Rachel Carson

Why do you loving working in STEM?
Initially, pursuing STEM was not a thought, I steered away, taking cover from STEM-related intimidation and anxiety. I am in love with the natural sciences. I want to defend the environment; therefore, I decided to charge STEM and embrace it.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Take charge and defend our home! Learn the technical tools to be STEM capable. Experience science & engineering in a hands-on manner by being proactive by engaging in citizen science & tinkering. Build your STEM network for a bigger bang.

Site: oceanresearchproject.org

Gender equality is important in gaming – here’s why

They have no place, because developers and publishers have decided not to include them. For any number of reasons – the financial drain of designing extra characters, the belief that women don’t play genre X, or the idea that male gamers won’t play female characters. Regardless, the take-away message from this is that it’s not even worth trying to get women into gaming – that they, as a demographic, are essentially worthless to the industry.

[ via PC & Tech Authority ]