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News On 

Volume 2
Number 3
July 2000

In this issue:

Minority Ph.D. Production in SME Fields: Distributing the Work?

Context and Attrition

An Interview with Dr.Mary Louise Soffa

A Profile of an AGEP Institution: University of Puerto Rico

From the editors

Managing Editor:Yolanda S. George
Virginia Van Horne
Art Director:
Ann Williams

Making Strides is a free, quarterly (April, July, October, and January) research newsletter published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program. Its purpose is to share information about minority graduate education in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. It is available in print and electronic format. Inquiries, information related to AGEP, and all correspondence should be sent to the editor. 

An Interview with Dr. Mary Louise Soffa

By Virginia Van Horne, Senior Research Associate

Each issue of Making Strides features a short interview with an underrepresented SME professor who has been instrumental in mentoring and encouraging students through the pipeline, as well as demonstrating leadership and outstanding accomplishments in the world of SME.

This issue I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Mary Louise Soffa, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Pittsburgh. A 1999 Presidential Awardee Winner for Excellence in Science, Mathmatics and Engineering, Dr. Soffa received her B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962, her M.S. in Mathematics from Ohio State University in 1967, and her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1977. Having authored or co-authored more than 110 publications, Dr. Soffa's current research projects include A Frame-work for Scalable Flow Analyzers and Optimizers; De-bugging Programming Versions; Compiling for Instruction Level Parallelism; and, Using Artificial Intelligence Plan Generation for Graphical User Interfaces Testing. Dr. Soffa served as the Graduate Dean in Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh from 1991 through 1996. As Vice President for the Computing Research Association (CRA) and Co-Chair of the CRA's Committee on the Status of Women in Computer Science and Engineering, she is an elected fellow of ACM and serves on several editorial board. She is currently a member-at-large for the ACM SIGBoard. During her tenure at the University of Pittsburgh, she has graduated 18 Ph.D. students (50% have been women) and 54 Master's students. 

What led you to computer science? 

When I grew up, computer science did not exist as a field. My interest in science came from my father. He always emphasized science to our entire family, when we were getting ready to go to school. When studying, he would highlight science and math and stress their importance. I took a lot of math in high school and always did well. Although my dad hadn't gone to college, he saw opportunities in studying science and math.

By the time I was ready for college, my older brother was attending the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in engineering. I knew I would attend the same university--our family lived in Pittsburgh, and it was what we could afford--yet, the only engineering I was interested in was civil. My dad didn't think this was an appropriate field for a woman! Consequently, I went into mathematics and I graduated in 1962 with a B.S. in mathematics.

Tell us about your experience as an undergraduate.

There were few women in my math classes. At times, it was difficult. Realistically, everybody has a story about their experiences. Mine is that I was the only female in my calculus class. On the first day the professor asked all of the students to remain standing as he called out our names. As he called out a name, he'd seat that person in alphabetical order. He skipped over my name and eventually, I was the only person standing. When I asked him where I should sit, he responded that I could sit anywhere since girls didn't belong in this class. At that moment, I told myself that I would get an A in his class; and I did. I worked very hard, and received assistance from the professor. In fact, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pittsburgh with a 3.9 grade point average. 

Back then, I was extremely shy and never spoke in class; people cannot believe this now. Because I was completely intimidated by faculty, I never talked to them about graduate school. Nor, did a faculty member ever approach me to discuss graduate school. It is for this very reason that I approach good students; they may feel uncomfortable about approaching me.

What did you do upon graduating with a B.S.?

My husband and I met in college. He graduated with an engineering degree and went to graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I applied to General Electric and got a job at their research lab in Schenectady, New York. Some of my work for GE involved programming. (That was about the time that computer programming started.) Although the programming was interesting, it was my other role, as a "calculator," that I found discouraging. One of the GE scientists regarded me as his personal "calculator." If I made one error, he became furious. His behavior toward me was impossible. I knew that this was not my life's work. 

After a year at GE, with encouragement from my husband, I decided to go to graduate school and get a Master's degree in math. 

What led you to Ohio State?

My husband went to Ohio State to complete his doctorate work. During this time, I gave birth to a baby girl, Melanie, in 1963. When she was only four months old, I entered the Master's program at Ohio State. I feel it is important to discuss this. From all of my work in this field, and from talking with so many women, I know, firsthand, that having a child and going to graduate school is a major concern. Many women want to know: how can I do this and have a family? You have to continually impress upon them that it IS possible. My husband would come home and take care of Melanie while I was in school. Sometimes, a next door neighbor would come over and babysit.

What led you to return to the University of Pittsburgh?

I got my Master's degree in 1967. My husband was offered a faculty position at the University of Pittsburgh so we returned there and in 1968 I gave birth to another child, Tracy. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in mathematics at the university. I was very fortunate because my mother lived nearby and she was able to help with the children. And, as a professor, my husband was able to help quite a bit.

I was in the mathematics program for about one-and-one-half years and was feeling that the work I was doing (pure mathematics) wasn't particularly relevant to what was going on in society at that time. Tremendous social and political changes were occurring, and I wanted to do something that could help others. I decided to leave the math department and entered the sociology department in 1969. I had a fellowship in that department and stayed for one year. I realized that sociology wasn't for me; perhaps because it was so different from mathematics.

In 1970 I went into the graduate school of public health, studying environmental acoustics (noise pollution). While at the school of public health, I began taking some computer science classes. Within a year, I realized that computer science was my true passion. Consequently, I entered the computer science department in 1972 and received my Ph.D. in 1977.

Was it difficult making these study field transitions?

I had no mentors along the way. I did well in my classes. It was never a problem to get into another program, and I always had a fellowship. People did question me as I left each field, but I had a good reason--I was looking for my life's work!

And, then?

I knew I needed to work at a place fairly close to our home. I applied for several positions and received an offer from the University of Pittsburgh in 1977 and I have been here ever since. It so happened that my advisor was leaving the university at the same time that I was looking for a position.

Why academia?

I enjoy doing research and the academic environment. It never occurred to me to go into industry. This was my life's work. I knew this when I was in graduate school.

Tell us about your career at the University.

For the first 14 years, I was the only female in the department whose size ranged from 12 faculty in 1973 to 20 now. At one point four of the 20 were women; now there are only two. But, there are few women in this field. And, I'm unsure if the university environment is attracting women to faculty positions. The women we've had have left for better opportunities or due to a "two body" problem (two professional people looking for positions). I got tenure in 1983 and was promoted to full professor in 1990. I also served as the graduate dean in arts and sciences from 1991 to 1996. Can you elaborate on your role as a graduate dean?

As graduate dean, I continued my research, but didn't continue teaching. I had several goals, and one of them was to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in the graduate programs. I instituted a number of programs; e.g., I found fellowship money and I gave fellowships to any department who could attract an underrepresented minority. I would fund that student for two years. The department had to provide a faculty mentor for the student and update me periodically on that student's progress. The department was also obligated to provide funding for that student until their Ph.D. was completed. Because of this initiative, over a four-year period, I increased the number of underrepresented minorities in math and science graduate programs by 100% (from 10 to 20). This program is still in place!

Although I enjoyed parts of the job, in particular, making an impact in terms of minorities, I knew that computer science was a field that moves very quickly and that I had to go back and continue my research or give it up. It was difficult to do research and be a full-time dean. In 1996 I decided to return to a faculty position and do research.

Were you surprised to win the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematical, and Engineering Mentoring?

I received this award in 1999. I was truly honored just to be nominated, let alone win an award! One of my previous graduate students was the nominator and other students wrote support letters. I was thrilled that they thought enough of me to do this. Do you see students leaving the field of computer science?

At the university level, there's a real concern in the field of computer science about the numbers of people leaving the university because it's so easy to get well-paying jobs. Some students leave before getting their B.S., especially if they go on internships. The students become involved in the companies and don't come back. As a discipline, we're having problems getting students--especially American students--to go onto graduate schools. Many of the students in this field are foreign. In our department, 65% of the graduate students are international. 

Those who do get their Master's don't want to stay to get their Ph.D. It really is a crisis situation. The thing about computer science is that there's a lot of research being done in industry. The research is very similar to what's being done in the university. It's not necessarily true that better research is being done in the university, however, at the university you have more control over the research you do. And, you can impact students. 

Tell us about your students.

I teach undergraduates and graduates and also do research in programming languages and software engineering. So far, I've graduated about 18 Ph.D. students (50% have been women) and 54 Master's students. Currently I have three Ph.D. students--one Hispanic female and two international males. The female is graduating this summer and taking a faculty position at another institution. I also have three undergraduate students working on research with me. I just started this. In the past I've had so many graduate students that I didn't have time to mentor the undergraduates. Now, since the numbers are going down, I have more time. 

I try to mentor and encourage all of my students. Frankly, I want them to go into universities and also be mentors.

We have a long way to go to make this an inclusive field. There are still challenges in terms of feeling isolated. If you are female or a minority, there's a sense of isolation. There aren't many of us. Having confidence in yourself is important. It's one of the most important things I have to do with students: encourage them, help them build their confidence, make sure they have successes along the way.

Thank you, Dr. Soffa.


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