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Maria Klawe: Esteemed Computer Scientist. Proud mathematician. Watercolor painter.

Maria Klawe, a well known computer scientist and mathematician spoke to TechRepublic about her career journey and her passion for building a supportive environment for undergrad CS majors.

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Maria Klawe is the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College.
Image: Maria Klawe

When Maria Klawe started her studies in computer science, the percentage of women was at its peak. Her first perception of the field was a positive one. But as her career as a theoretical computer scientist progressed, Klawe watched the numbers fall, and fall, and fall — down to 18% of women in the US graduating with computer science degrees today.

"I've always been passionate about using culture of science and engineering [and the] support of people because I was always the girl or young woman, the minority interested in computer science, it's the only discipline that rates had gone down rather than increased," Klawe said. "[I've been] spending a lot of my career really focusing on how to get more women because it's such an amazing discipline to make contributions."

Klawe is the first female president of Harvey Mudd College. During her eight years there, Klawe has watched the number of female students jump from 31% female to 47%, and faculty jump from around 31% to 40%, and a big reason for those jumps is her strategic planning.

One of her most notable projects has been redefining Harvey Mudd's computer science curriculum. Though the initiative started a few months before Klawe took the job, she has been integral to its success.

The faculty and staff wanted to increase the number of computer science majors back in 2006. They bettered the introductory courses to be more stimulating, supportive, and efficient. They switched from Java to Python. They created sections based on prior experience so there wouldn't be a small number of students dominating because they taught themselves the subject.

Klawe said it was enough to convince many students — especially young women — to take second and third courses, and eventually major in the subject. The number of computer science majors jumped from 10 to 40% in just four years, making it a dominant discipline. Now, even students from other universities can take the courses.

"I feel passionate about it because we did strategic planning in such an inclusive way," Klawe said. "A third of students and staff, alumni and parents — an inclusive experience brings people together to create a vision, and everybody owns it."

Klawe said she grew up thinking and acting like a boy — she was the second oldest of four girls, and loved doing things with her father. She gardened, did woodworking, and loved math and science. She was completely distanced from dolls and fancy clothes.

She was also an artist from very early on, and wanted to go to school for engineering to become an architect. She went into mathematics because those courses were much more rigorous than engineering. Klawe received her undergraduate degree and PhD in mathematics from the University of Alberta.

The problem was, there weren't many jobs in math. When she finally found a teaching position, Klawe realized she wasn't a fan of the campus culture and found herself bored and lonely. She saw her friends with education in computer science getting jobs at Harvard and other ivy league schools. So she went back to school, but this time, for a PhD in theoretical computer science.

It was much tougher than she thought it would be. The transition was hard and Klawe walked into her first computer science course never having written a program. But she caught on, and started getting job offers her second semester there.

Klawe spent two years at the University of Toronto, which was a top-tier computer science school and then eight years with IBM Research in California. She worked at the University of British Columbia until 2002, where she served as dean of science, VP of student and academic services, and head of the department of computer science. She then moved to dean of engineering and professor of computer science at Princeton University.

"I feel incredibly lucky for having the good fortune to add computer science. Not that I ever stopped being a mathematician," she said. "In addition work on lots of interesting things, [I've done] games for math education, technologies, and lots of things that as just a mathematician I wouldn't have gotten to do."

Klawe was the "first female" in many of her roles throughout her career. After a while, "it becomes very clear there's a problem," she said. That's why she has dedicated her time and attention to creating that supportive environment for students starting out in the field, especially young women.

"One of those things often talk to students about is to not just to do what you love," she said "But do what the world actually needs. Find the intersection between those two areas, and you end up being very successful."

Klawe said she has "a weird mix of stubbornness and willingness to change that is magical." She has always been stubborn enough to persist, even when the odds were stacked against her, but "willing to change to have that quantum leap upwards," she said.

In her own words...

What are some of your hobbies?

"I paint all the time, I have my entire life. More than 40 years ago, I started focusing on watercolors — everything from portraits to landscapes to abstracts to wildlife, it's part of my life. I love outdoor things like kayaking and hiking and biking, stuff like that.

What type of music do you like?

"Music right now, I'm not playing, im just listening. The main is [I played] trumpet when I was in 8th grade to 12th — classical music, symphony in my city, a concert band. I stopped that in university because I was pretty sure I couldn't do art and math and painting. I played piano for a few years, and guitar."

What is the best part about your job?

"I'm 63 now. The best thing about my life is I'm still learning every single week. What allows you to be successful as a beginning faculty member, researcher, president, member of board, it's a different set of skillsets... What I love about my own life is that I always keep on learning."

What advice do you give your students?

"I talk a lot to students about what's important if you want to make a difference in the world. Persistence, because something important is something that will be hard to achieve and it won't happen overnight. And getting others to work with you on it. You never make a difference doing it by yourself. Be willing to change your strategy...shift slightly. That's part of the learning bit. And ask for help, which is one of my more recent things to learn. We're often very proud of what we can achieve by ourselves."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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