Computers Touch Everything

Here I am with my best friend when I think we were 19. I’m the one on the left with the jet black died hair and the Drama Queen sweater. Forgive me for the clothes and the the quality of the picture. This was before the age of digital photography was rampant.

Back when I was a teenager it was easy to ignore anything any adult said to me. I mean all it would take is for any adult to imply that the guy I was dating perhaps wasn’t the best, and I would declare him my soul mate. Or for some one to tell me my clothes were atrocious and I would buy a second pair of yellow balloon pants. I didn’t react well to adult intervention.

These days my pictures are all adorable babies and posts about being a working mom. For instance, here is the latest picture of my little fatheads when we were last up in Michigan.

Now it isn’t completely fair to say that my life is a totally different. I’m still boy crazy. I’m just a different kind of boy crazy. I’m crazy about being the worlds best room parent — which I know sounds lame. I’m also still into some rock music, but I’m much more into singing Rock A Bye Baby late at night. Much is the same but basically, I got old.

When I was a teenager I was a real precocious hellion. I would skip school, stay out late, and I did the kinds of things that give the me now, as a mom, heart ache. However, my one saving grace was that I was really good at school. So when it came time to decide what to do after graduating from high school, I had options.

My senior year in high school I was taking a decent spread of classes. I liked physics, biology, and english. I also was taking my 3rd computer course and my third psychology course. I had taught myself how to code my TI-83 calculator — see the sweet gif (which is a whole other story) and I had taught myself some VBasic. I was convinced that I could create an easier to use version of Word — the document writing software. But, at the same time, I was also reading text books on Psychology… for fun. I was fascinated by Skinner and experiments on how animals learned. I was pretty torn on what to study in college but ended up settling on psychology.

Regardless of what I studied I knew I wanted to end up in the Peace Corp. I mean how cool would it be to be part of the Peace Corp? I had visions of saving whales and helping distribute mosquito nets and malaria medication. I thought I could put all of that angst that I was feeling into something positive like trying to make the world a better place. Sure I would go to college and get an education — but after that, I had dreams about flying off to save the world.

Luckily, I had a great best friend. She also had great parents.

Right before it was time for me to pick my university classes, I had a really important conversation with my best friend and her parents — parents that happened to be computer professionals. They asked me to try and take one computer science course my first year. They knew I was going to study psychology, but I had electives where I could pick whatever I wanted to study.

Here was their logic: everyone wants to go work for the Peace Corps. I mean who doesn’t want to go save a whale? And if everyone wants to go the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps have got to be picky; the Peace Corps cannot take everyone no matter how much angst I or anyone else has. You know what would set me apart? You know what would be a sure fire way to get my foot in the door? They said that knowing how to code is a difference maker. Everyone needs someone that knows how to code. Everyone needs someone that can come in an set up a computer network in a remote location. Everyone needs someone that can write software to help two computer systems to talk to each other. If I really wanted to get into the Peace Corps, no matter what I studied, knowing more about computers would help me get there. More than that, even if I graduate in four years and decide the Peace Corps are now lame (they’re not, but whatever), knowing more about computers will help me get to where I want to go.

Now I don’t want to get into why I put down Psychology and not Computer Science when I was applying for colleges. There is a whole lot out there about the kinds of experiences young women have that tell them that computers aren’t for them. But what I do want to emphasize is the message my friend’s parents gave me. Even though I was a terrible teenager, I listened to the one piece of advice that has had the most influence on my life.

I did go and take that one computer class. It was easy so I took another. And then I added Computer Science as a second major so I took a whole bunch of other CS classes that weren’t as easy but were a whole lot of fun. And then I started working as an undergraduate student researcher studying how humans use computers — using both psychology and computer science. And then, before I knew it, I had a PhD and was working to design software every day that saves lives at Next Century. Here I am with my husband and our oldest fathead during my “hooding” at graduation.

The one thing that stays with me is what I heard when I was 18: computers touch everything. If you want to study biology understanding computers is going to make you better. So much of biology is not just computer simulation, but mapping the human genome is all computer software. I have a friend, Dr. Olsen at Loyola, that is studying just this very topic and computer literacy is core to her success. I have another friend, Dr. Burge, who is interested in education that is particularly focused in how the use of technology impacts a student’s ability to learn. And, I have a friend, Dr. Branham that is interested in helping support disabled people through assertive technology and Dr. Kurdziolek who is doing really interesting things with Voice UIs. (By the way, all of those doctors are women.)

I could go on and on, because I know so many really interesting people doing some amazing things with computers. So many people think that computers are sitting in a small cubicle and typing all day long. Sure, that kind of work exists; I’m not saying it doesn’t. What I am saying is that there is some insanely amazing work that can be found at the junction of whatever interest you have and computers.

So, if you haven’t already, check out our previous posts from last years activities at our Women in Computing Day: Finite State Machines, User Experience, Programming, and Circuits. And know that even if you are filled with a terrible amount of teenage angst (or even adult angst?), computers can definitely be for you- as they were for me. Sure, I’m kind of a lame now, but I listened to that once piece of advice all those years ago, and I am grateful every day that I did. I hope you be will grateful too.

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