BY ADITYA AGRAWAL
Chatting with Rhodes winner and visionary computer scientist Ruth Fong ’15.
The Rhodes Trust announced the 2014 Rhodes scholarship winners on Saturday, November 22. Three Harvard students made it to the list – Ben D. Sprung Keyser ’15 (Economics, Kirkland), Ruth Fong ’15 (Computer Science, Mather), and Fritzi Reuter ’14 (Economics, Lowell). The announcement, for me, was fraught with disappointments – chief amongst which were the inability of the quad to produce to a winner and the overshadowing of our own three victories by the filthy Eli’s six. However, as with all good things in life, there came a delightful silver lining threaded into the announcement: a girl coder was getting recognition! As a computer science major and a budding feminist myself, I saw this victory as a sign, perhaps, of things to come; a sign of things changing, the world moving, and landscapes reshaping. I sat down with Ruth in the aftermath of her victory for a small tête-à-tête, where we discussed issues close to Ruth’s heart and her amazing success as a female computer scientist. Safe to say, I was inspired by the profundity of her answers accented with her brilliant wit and her raw passion for the things she does.
AA: What are your eventual plans for your future — academia, research, private industry, public service?
RF: God willing, all of the above. I’m interested in answering questions like: how do humans learn, how do computers see, and how can we make machines learn and see more like humans? Eventually, I’d like to be a Computer Science professor who conducts research in biologically-inspired machine learning, teaches and encourages all kinds of people to pursue careers in STEM fields, and frequently leaves the lab to understand (and hopefully help solve) “real-world” problems like making the blind see (with glasses that can process visual information for them) and the lame walk (with robotic prosthetics that mimic human neural circuitry). When those plans don’t work out, I’d like to be a learn how to fly and be a superwoman mom.
AA: What inspired or motivated you to study Computer Science?
RF: I’m a nerd, and my friends will readily nod their heads. I grew up playing with Legos, K’Nex, and RadioShack electronic kits. Thanks to a fantastic woman Mrs. Gall, I learned how to code in high school. But, I always thought that programming would just be a hobby of mine. It wasn’t until I arrived on Harvard’s campus that I seriously considered pursuing Computer Science. After participating in HackHarvard’s mini-incubator winter session and taking CS51, much to my biologist parents’ dismay, I chose to concentrate in CS over MCB because I fell in love with the beauty of neat programs and experienced the joy of building things with my own hands (or really, typing fingers).
AA: Being the heavily male dominated field that it is, how receptive is CS to women coders in the industry? Have you ever felt marginalized because of your gender in your own experience?
RF: Tech knows it has a problem; it just doesn’t know how to solve it. This is good because admitting [its problem] is the first step. The CS community is eager to have more female members, but I think there are larger, unspoken cultural issues that may be impeding that effort. Here are two (there’s many more).
One, the brogrammer myth. Great CS folks don’t need to have programmed from a young age, play video games, or like Star Trek, or live to code from sunrise to sundown. They don’t come in one shape, look, or size and they don’t come with the same interests—both inside and outside of the tech sphere. Here’s just one aspect of this false CS ideal: There’s a perception that some areas of CS are “girly-er” and “softer” while others are “harder” and “more legit.” I think this can be particularly worrisome for female techies who enjoy those areas that are described as more “girly”, as they can question their interests and their legitimacy in the field, when they’re doing amazing things!
Two, a 50-50 gender ideal. I’d love to live in this universe. However, not only is this out of touch with reality, I think it hampers the progress towards that ideal. HR statements implicitly driven by this ideal make me question whether I earned an accolade or offer based on my credentials or my chromosomes.
Thankfully, throughout most of my technical experiences, I’ve been encouraged to success in the field and mentored well, so I don’t think I’ve ever felt marginalized. I have been sensitive to the fact that I often am the only or one of few women in a classroom, lab, or team at a company. I think this can affect me by adding subtle pressure that I succeed not only for myself, but for all women in the world (which is ridiculous). This is reductionist, but rings with some truth: We need bad and mediocre female programmers. There are bad and mediocre male programmers, individuals who love it, but frankly aren’t amazing at it. I know few bad female programmers that stay, and I think part of the problem is this pressure that women in tech sometimes feel that they need to do well for the rest of us. When the tech community is inclusive enough to allow initially mediocre engineers of all types to grow and develop their programming skills, then it’d be a more inclusive community for all.
AA: What, in your opinion, would be a good strategy to promote CS amongst girls, to promote more “Ruths” at Harvard and beyond?
RF: First of all, K-12 education should include CS. Education research has shown that around the ages of 12-14, children formulate their world of future possibilities. If by that age, a girl hasn’t been exposed to computer science, it’s much less likely that she will pursue a career in technology. Examining the toy industry, boys are more likely to be exposed to computer science and engineering themes than girls. Thus, my proposition is that basic computer science education be included in K-12 education.
Secondly, there is a certain idea of “Self-Concept” where women seeing other women in a certain field feel more empowered. This idea explains that seeing someone physically like you (be it gender, ethnicity, etc.) in your field makes it easier for you to imagine yourself succeeding in that space. Obviously, this suggests a chicken-and-egg problem (where do we get these female role models?). Nevertheless, at Harvard, building the community of women in CS and structures for formal and informal mentorship are easy avenues to practice “self-concept”. The Women in CS club is doing a fantastic job at this, but I’d encourage every female CS concentrator to think about ways she can be active in Harvard’s computer science community. An example of where we can improve is encouraging female concentrators to TF upper-level computer science courses. Until I pulled in another female friend, I was going to be the only female TF for CS121, the only truly required computer science course with over 140 students enrolled this year.
AA: How would you describe your personal work ethic?
RF: This is what it’s not:
“I never miss a class
I’m lightning on the bus
And that’s what they don’t see, mmm-mmm
That’s what they don’t see, mmm-mmm”
My roommates and I were competing in Mather’s Louie Cup, an inter-house yearlong Olympics competition, and wrote a Mather-themed song sung to the tune of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Above is part of the lyrics that I sung. To quote one of my roommates: “Ruth, I want that to be my ringtone so that I can go to some of your CS classes, have my phone ring, and listen to you sing that lie.”
I’d like to think I optimize for efficiency and not perfection.
AA: How would you describe your time at Harvard in three words?
RF: Stressful. Crazy. Fun.
Aditya Agrawal ’17 (firstname.lastname@example.org) thinks the path to Rhodes has lots of interesting twists and turns.