Friday, November 11, 2011

GHC: Anita Borg Technical Leadership Award Winner

This year's ABI Technical Leadership award winner is Mary Lou Soffa, from the University of Virginia. Her talk was titled "My Dance with Research: An Ode to my Graduate Students"

Dr. Mary Lou Soffa has graduated a bunch of PhD and MS students, half of which are women and/or minorities - impressive! Thirty-two PhD students alone (half women).

Dr. Soffa has been so inspired by her own graduate students, they keep her on her toes (she's got to make sure she's reading all of the latest publications in her area), lead her research in unexpected directions and challenge her on a regular basis.

One of her favorite things about being a professor has been mentoring. When she saw what a big difference she could make with just one student with just a little extra time, she knew this was something she had to pursue.

She's noticed a consistent pattern between her male and female students - for example, when a male student's paper is rejected, he believes the program committee is full of idiots. When a female student has her paper rejected, she believes it's because the paper was just junk. Hrm, gets back to yesterday's keynote about men overestimating their own accomplishments.

Dr. Soffa draws parallels to some of her favorite dances for how different students work - like the Swing - all over the place (she must remind them to focus, focus, focus!!), or Hokey Pokey - coordinated and works well with others.

Dr. Soffa had quite a windy path to becoming a computer scientist! She started out in maths, tried sociology, philosophy, environmental acoustics - all in PhD programs, before discovering computer science (via a course required by her environmental acoustics studies).

Not only does Dr. Soffa metaphorically dance with her students, they do so with each other as well. She took us through a cool graphical adventure about how each of her students work influenced each-other, even years later, as well as the general computing world. For example, one of her fist student's work went into the C++ language.

Dr. Soffa's students work on code analysis is now being used to find vulnerabilities in code in a safe lab environment.

One suggestion Dr. Soffa had for one of her students, who was always rushing to implement things and not thinking through the designs, was to sit in a room for four hours and just think. No laptop, no cellphone, not even any paper. Just think. She said there are so many interesting ideas you can come up with in the silence of your mind. Might have to try this, but when could I have four hours to do this? Maybe just starting small.

It sounds like she's just had a blast in academia, anyone thinking about pursuing a PhD should look to have her (or someone like her) as an adviser. Student success, learning new skills (for students and herself), and moving research forward are so important to her. What an inspiring woman!


This post syndicated from Thoughts on security, beer, theater and biking!