Dr. Maria Klawe: Pioneering World-Renowned Computer Scientist and Executive Leader, Shares her Early Career Years
Harvey Mudd College is led by Maria Klawe, HMC's fifth president who began her tenure in 2006. A renowned computer scientist and scholar, President Klawe is the first woman to lead the college since its founding in 1955. Prior to joining HMC, she served as Dean of Engineering and Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. During her time at Princeton, Maria led the School of Engineering and Applied Science through a strategic planning exercise that created an exciting and widely embraced vision for the school.
At Harvey Mudd College, she led a similarly ambitious strategic planning initiative, "HMC 2020: Envisioning the Future." Maria joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia where she served as Dean of Science from 1998 to 2002, Vice President of Student and Academic Services from 1995 to 1998 and Head of the Department of Computer Science from 1988 to 1995. Prior to UBC, Maria spent eight years with IBM Research in California, and two years at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. (1977) and B.Sc. (1973) in Mathematics from the University of Alberta. Maria has made significant research contributions in several areas of mathematics and computer science including functional analysis, discrete mathematics, theoretical computer science, human-computer interaction, gender issues in information technology, and interactive-multimedia for mathematics education.
Her current research focuses on the development and use of multi-modal applications to assist people with aphasia and other cognitive impairments. Maria is a past president of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) in New York, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, and a trustee of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics in Los Angeles and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. In the past Maria has held leadership positions with the American Mathematical Society, the Computing Research Association, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and the Canadian Mathematical Society.
Maria is one of 10 members of the board of Microsoft Corporation, a newly elected member of the Broadcom board, a board member of the nonprofit Math for America, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and past chair of the board for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, Calif. She was elected as a fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery in 1996 and as a founding fellow of the Canadian Information Processing Society in 2006. Other awards include Vancouver YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Science and Technology (1997), Wired Woman Pioneer (2001), Canadian New Media Educator of the Year (2001), BC Science Council Champion of the Year (2001), University of Alberta Distinguished Alumna (2003), Nico Habermann Award (2004), and honorary doctorates from Acadia University (2006), Dalhousie University (2005), Queen's University (2004), the University of Waterloo (2003) and Ryerson University (2001).
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Maria, you are an icon in so many domains where your innovations and accomplishments laid foundations in science, education, leadership, innovation, and research. This is the second in an interview series where we will explore your considerable history from your early years and into your professional life of notable distinction and significant outstanding contributions in a number of fields including societal causes. Thank you for sharing your considerable expertise, deep accumulated insights, and wisdom with our audience.
Maria, in these series of questions, we are taking a chronological journey from your 20's starting with three takeaways from our first interview. However before we begin mining your history, let us discuss your experiences at the World CIO Forum, board retreat, Grace Hopper conference and work with world leaders.
While at the World CIO Forum (WCF), you visited a school. Please share your experiences.
"....I was lucky to have the opportunity to visit an experimental school (Kindergarten through to 12th grade) in Shenzhen, one of only five schools in China that are allowed to use different curricula from the standard state mandated curricula....This particular school emphasizes music, art, fitness and leadership development in addition to the usual academic courses....I was really impressed by the vision of the founder and the enthusiasm of the students...."
Your WCF keynote created much discussion before and after. What triggered this and what were the wins?
"....The reason I agreed to be a speaker at the World CIO Forum was I wanted to talk about increasing the participation of females in computing careers, because this is an issue all around the world and I thought that is would be a good venue to really cover that subject....From my perspective it all turned out to be fine but it was definitely an interesting experience...."
From your experiences at the WCF, what work still needs to be done?
"....It's clear that the low participation of females in computing careers is a problem in just about every country....It's clear that if institutions are willing to put some effort into it they can really change the situation. They've got to think about changing their curriculum and particularly think about changing their culture among their CS students...."
From your board retreat, where is Harvey Mudd heading and why?
"....At Harvey Mudd we have a long tradition of being extremely innovative in how we approach undergraduate education both in terms of how we do science, math and engineering education (which is what we're specializing in), but also the way that we include humanities, social sciences, the arts, teamwork, communication skills, all those kinds of things and a lot of hands on learning. What we're trying to focus on right now is: one, how do we sustain that and secondly, how do we disseminate it better because we're such a small institution...."
Can you share updates from the Grace Hopper conference?
"....Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, was the first keynote....I'd like to repeat the five pieces of advice that she had for young women (applies to young men too) because I completely agree with them....Believe in yourself and keep on pushing forward even if you doubt yourself....Dream big....Choose the right partner....Don't leave before you leave....Talk about women's issues...."
You have ongoing relationships with many programs and notable world leaders. Can you describe some of the programs and share some stories about your experiences with some of these notable experts and leaders?
"....I feel really lucky to have met a number of people who are doing really wonderful things in the world. The first one is Math for America's Jim Simons....Another program that I'm excited about is called Reasoning Minds. I got exposed to Reasoning Mind really because Neil Lane....The third is I'm very lucky to have participated in the opening of the Annenberg Sunnylands Retreat Center on Feb. 11th....Being President of Harvey Mudd College and because we have such a strong commitment to education, allows me to engage with education at levels and with institutions far beyond just at Harvey Mudd College..."
Looking back to the prior interview where we talked about some of the earlier years can you summarize some of the shareable lessons from your early years?
"....How important it was to develop my own set of values and to understand what mattered to me....Really coming to terms about how important my commitment to mathematics and art was....Discovering that with enough hard work I could learn absolutely anything....The importance of persistence....We're often told do what you're passionate about, but sometimes you have to balance that with other needs...."
What triggered your first academic position choices?
"....I ended up going back and doing a second PhD in computer science. Within five months of my starting at the University of Toronto they hired me as a regular faculty member there....What they cared about was that I was capable of learning and teaching and they thought that I was going to be able to do a really good job...."
What were your research interests and their lasting impact?
"....My initial research in mathematics was in functional analysis....In terms of the research that I did in theoretical computer science, I tend to like problems that are easy to state but hard to solve....I would say early on I just had this passion for working on hard problems and occasionally create structures that are useful to solve other problems, because I much more enjoy creating things that are new and finding new approaches to do things than in applying well-known structures to new problems...."
Describe your good and bad experiences at that time and how they influenced you?
"....The magic of just understanding and learning that I could work in theoretical computer science and I could do mathematics and it was all going to be okay...."
During this period, how would you describe yourself - your attitude; your aspirations, your approach to societal contributions, family, friends, activities, interests, hobbies, life in general, your intended career path?
"....At that time in my life my most important thing that I wanted out of life was I wanted to be a leading theoretical computer science researcher, I wanted to spend time with students but most of all I wanted to find a partner and have kids. It wasn't until a bit later I really thought about changing the world...."
Maria can you further describe those years and some pivotal events that shaped you?
"....Learning that I could love computer science....Seeing positive role models in the computer science faculty at the University of Toronto....Meeting Nick....How amazing the opportunities in theoretical computer science were compared to just about any area in mathematics....The realization there really are areas where there are more opportunities...."
You've taken industry positions. What motivated you at the time?
"....The two things that we looked at was for me to go work for IBM Research which would mean that his work environment would stay stable or for both of us to be in academic positions...."
Describe your industry research contributions, their lasting impact and your career journey.
"....I thought the smartest people would have the most impact but it was while I was at IBM that I had the revelation that it's not about how smart you are, it's about setting goals, developing strategy and bringing together the resources — particularly the people support — to achieve that goal and persistence and that's how you have the most impact in the world...."
Describe your industry-based good and bad experiences at that time and how they influenced you?
"....IBM had an incredible commitment to career development for their managers and had some of the best leadership and management training in the world at the time, and I benefited incredibly from that....At the time (this has changed enormously) they had an incredibly rigid management system...."
Who were your mentors in industry and how did they influence you?
"....Other than Nick....Pat Selinger....Ralph Gomery...."
Which did you find most satisfying at that time, your academic or industry work, and why?
"....While I valued being there (IBM Research), and I think it was a great foundation for what I was going to do for the rest of my life, I believe in education so deeply I knew I would be coming back to academia....."
You are always working on the hard questions and challenges - what were they?
"....One of them was building collaboration between mathematics and theoretical computer science. Another one was getting women to be taken seriously in the mathematical and computer science research community. A third one was getting IBM to understand why academic computer scientists wouldn't use IBM hardware or software....Balancing children with having an ambitious career...."
What were the areas of controversy?
"....The whole idea of just being able to enable collaboration....Wearing shorts to work...."
Based upon those years, if you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....If you had it to do over again would you go to IBM Research at that point in your life?....Why did you leave IBM Research?....Did you miss IBM Research after you left?...."
Maria, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.
This is the second in an interview series where we explore Maria’s considerable history from her early years and into her professional life of notable distinction and significant outstanding contributions in a number of fields including societal causes. In the next interview, we will delve into Maria’s later professional career as an academic and as an entrepreneur.