STEMinist Profile: Mary Fernández, Information & Software Systems Research, AT&T Labs

Mary Fernandez - ATT Labs

Mary Fernández

Assistant Vice President, Information and Software Systems Research

AT&T Labs

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I was a very good student in math and science and I knew that entering an engineering field would provide me with a stable, good income, and an intellectually challenging career. When I arrived at Brown University, as a freshman, I enrolled in engineering, but I wasn’t happy. Computer science was a very new field—I had never seen a computer in my life, so I signed up for the Introduction to Computer Science course.

My first professor was Andres van Dam, who is a luminary of computer science in the US. He was an astonishing, fantastic teacher, who said all sorts of crazy things, like everyone will have a computer in their home someday and computers will be so small we will carry them around in our pockets. At that time, computers were still the size of trucks, so these ideas seemed ludicrous, but also incredibly exciting. So I was hooked and changed my major to computer science.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest technology that I have ever been associated with is Geocast, a networking protocol for sending messages to geographic locations in space. It has lots of cool applications, like GeoGames, which are healthy, video games that are played outdoors on smartphones and that encourage vigorous exercise.

Although games are fun and engaging, Geocast has a more serious application, which is helping military personnel and first responders keep track of each other when they are performing their important jobs in the field—this is known as “situational awareness.” Someday, we hope that Geocast for Situational Awareness will help keep people who have dangerous jobs safer. It is a huge privilege and honor to contribute to technology of this kind.

Role models/heroes:
Yikes, that is hard. Benjamin Franklin is a role model and hero, because he was a great inventor, diplomat, and student of human nature—all key characteristics to being successful in high tech!

Why do you love working in STEM?
Many reasons! First, I am never, ever bored. Computing, which is part of the ‘T’ in STEM, is a dynamic, fast-paced field. To keep up, I constantly have to learn about new problems and new technologies. I cannot stand being bored, so computing is great for me. Although the computing field can be demanding, it is also very flexible—you can do your work anywhere at any time.

That flexibility has been enormously valuable to my husband and me when we were raising our children (who are now 18 and 15). We did (and still do) work long hours, but we were able to be home in the late afternoon with our girls from the time they were babies, and this has been great for our family life.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Get a mentor! Be a mentor! I have had a mentor since I went to grad school in 1989, when I received a Graduate Research Program for Women grant from AT&T Bell Labs. The grant provided me with a mentor, Brian Kernighan, who supported me throughout graduate school. That experience was so influential that I have been a mentor myself to students—tudying computing and other STEM fields—since 1998. Today, I am chair of the board of MentorNet, and I have been a MentorNet mentor since 1998.

MentorNet is a fantastic program whose goal is to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields by pairing students with professionals working in STEM fields. More than 31,000 students have been matched with mentors since we began in 1998. Our on-line, e-mentoring program lasts for 9 months and students in our program have a much higher retention rate (>90% are still in their STEM field 2 years after having a mentor) and a much higher sense of satisfaction than other students. We believe this is because mentors help students see the future and their potential, while they are still getting their education. You can sign-up to be a mentor or a student protégé for free, so check it out!

Favorite website/app:
The Zappos iPhone app. I love being able to look at shoes (and buy them) wherever and whenever I feel like it! Plus it’s a beautifully designed app.

Website: AT&T Labs Profile

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