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STEM Thought Leader - Maria Klawe

Leading the Way...

A Conversation with Maria Klawe   

Maria Klawe

By Lori Dubois and Beverly Louie


When someone is the president of a prestigious science and engineering college, a renowned mathematician, an accomplished artist, and one of only two women on the Microsoft Board, you might assume she may be just a bit difficult to schedule time with or even perhaps a bit aloof. Instead, we shared a delightful hour recently with Maria Klawe, listening to her heartfelt stories and motivating attitude. Her combination of honesty, sense of fun, and appreciation of others make her extremely likeable, even while standing in awe of her amazing accomplishments. She's exactly the kind of person you want to invite on your next adventure!

What shaped the woman

Well before middle school, Maria Klawe became an advocate for women in STEM. Convinced that she should have been a boy, she spent many years behaving, believing, and trying to appear as a boy. When she faced the painful truth that she would not wake up in the morning as the boy she knew she was supposed to be, she was determined to do all the things boys did. Typical of girls interested in science and engineering at the time of her childhood, she built things, went on grand adventures, jumped off roofs (because that's what parachute jumpers in training did, after all) and dug tunnels similar to the escape routes depicted in the spy books she read.

By the age of 14, Klawe knew she must change some things in her life in order to fit in and be happy. Although she loved all things "boy" and despised all things "girl," she was lonely. Even at this young age, Klawe thought strategically, and she approached one of the popular girls at school to ask what she should do to be popular. After hearing the list, which included wearing makeup and other "girly" things, she adopted the actions and learned to "pass pretty well," in her words.

Being the only girl in her advanced math class and the top student at her school, Klawe was heavily recruited by the University of Alberta. She also applied to a few other universities, but in Canada, where she grew up, it is common to attend a university close to your home. Klawe attended the University of Alberta with the intention of studying civil engineering and architecture, which seemed the perfect fit for her passion and abilities in mathematics and art, already being an accomplished painter by high school. Three days before classes started, however, Klawe dropped engineering when she learned she could not enroll in the honors math classes as an engineering major. Mathematics was her true love and she knew she belonged in those higher level classes.

The career path is never straight

Fast forward several years, during a period in which Klawe questioned the practicality of using math to really impact the world; she left school for a year and a half, returning when she realized how desperately she missed math. She credits the math department at the University of Alberta for being gracious enough to readmit her with an aggressive plan to gain her undergraduate degree and a Ph.D., even after hearing her less-than-positive opinions on math when she left a year and a half earlier! By age 25, upon completing her Ph.D. in mathematics, Klawe found opportunities in the field lacking. After spending some time teaching at a medium-sized university that did not really satisfy her, Klawe learned at a conference that theoretical mathematicians like her were having strong success at getting positions in the field of computer science. Thus, the next stage of her career began.

Klawe entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto, one of the top three schools in the world in theoretical computer science at the time. Before her Ph.D. was even complete, she was receiving invitations to apply for teaching positions. Following one such interview, Klawe found out that the department chair had learned of her interviews. Returning his phone call and fearing what he might say, she was pleasantly surprised when he asked why she had not applied to the University of Toronto, to which the humble Klawe replied, "this is one of the top schools in the world." His reply was "there had better be an application on my desk by 9 am Monday morning." As soon as her graduate coursework was completed, Klawe became an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Toronto.

In an attempt to provide Klawe exposure to well-known experts in the field, Klawe was assigned to host a seminar series. The second person she met through the seminars was Nick Pippenger. Within six weeks, Maria and Nick were engaged, despite the belief by some that they were too different and that it would be too difficult to have a successful relationship in which both partners were superstars in their field. Klawe is quite proud to have proved these people wrong after two children, moves across several states and two countries, and a 33 year marriage with her husband who is also her biggest supporter and best friend.

President Klawe's career path includes positions at IBM Research, the University of British Columbia, Princeton, and her current position as President of Harvey Mudd College. Although she knew she ultimately wanted to end up in academia, the eight years spent at IBM Research taught her many valuable lessons, in addition to building her top-notch reputation as a researcher. One of the most important things Klawe learned through her management positions at IBM was recognizing the need to advocate for underrepresented people, no matter the reason for their underrepresentation. Klawe candidly admits as she started in management roles at IBM, she valued "male" characteristics such as assertiveness, drive, and argumentative attitudes but deemed lacking in women. Soon she came to question her previously held beliefs on who should be valued and supported in their work as a scientist. "I realized it was about much more than people like me-it was about all kinds of people" says Klawe. "Women who care about their appearance deserve, just as much as I do, to be valued as scientists and engineers." She also confirmed her personal experience that "the way we see science and engineering is just not broadly inclusive" without conscious efforts to make it so.

Following eight years at IBM, Klawe and her family returned to Canada where she would work at the University of British Columbia for the next 15 years. She served as head of the Department of Computer Science, Vice President of Student and Academic Services, and Dean of Science during her time there. Klawe achieved many accomplishments and received many accolades, including being the first female faculty member in computer science, the first female science department head, and the first female vice president.

Klawe accepted a position at Princeton as the Dean of Engineering, and stayed at Princeton until she made a move across the country to serve as President of Harvey Mudd College, her current position.

Left brain, right brain

While it is not the secret now that it was in her early career, Klawe is an extremely talented artist. Her watercolor paintings are an integral piece of who she is, and her decision to come out as an artist on her 40th birthday was carefully considered for many years. She believed that being a woman and being a painter would serve as "a double whammy," in contributing to the already difficult task of being taken seriously in the fields of mathematics and computer science as a woman. It is clear when talking to Klawe that she delights in practicing and sharing her passions of art and science. She says, "I cannot tell you what it meant to me" when sharing the story of the first professional artist who was greatly impressed by her work, commissioning Klawe to paint a portrait of Cecil and Ida Green which still hangs in Green College at the University of British Columbia.

Those who know and work with President Klawe are not surprised to see her working on her paintings during meetings. "Initially people were surprised, but then they were fascinated" by her meeting activity. Klawe says, "I pay better attention when I'm painting. It doesn't interfere with any kind of language operation at all, and makes me be a better participant." To see Maria at work while working, watch her video interviews on Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers.

Moving the needle - numbers don't lie

President Klawe shares that her most satisfying accomplishment is recruiting and retaining more women in computer science. She has spent almost 25 years of her life dedicated to this pursuit, and takes pride in it, especially because the number of women entering computer science had been declining for years. Klawe co-founded CRA (Computing Research Association) Commission on the Status of Women in 1990 which is still active today. She has been involved in countless organizations, committees, initiatives, and boards striving to increase women's participation in computer science and mathematics. Klawe was part of the first Grace Hopper Conference and highly involved with Anita Borg in founding the Anita Borg Institute (originally founded as the Institute for Women in Technology).

Since President Klawe's arrival at Harvey Mudd College (HMC), the percentage of women in computer science at the college has increased from 12% to over 40%. As happy as this makes President Klawe, she is careful to not claim credit for all the success. She states "I can take partial credit for more women undergrads at HMC overall, but I take zero credit for undergrads in computer science-this work is really done by our faculty." President Klawe is quick to praise the faculty and staff at HMC for their "incredible dedication towards undergraduate education. Faculty and staff are here because we care."

We all impact each other

Klawe has impacted the lives of countless students, faculty, and scientists in industry over the years. When asked who impacted her life in the greatest way, Klawe is quick to point out that many people have touched her life in important ways. "I am somebody who interacts with a lot of people, but every interaction has an impact on my life as much as it has on somebody else's life." She gives credit first to her parents as having an enormous influence in her life. Admitting she was probably a difficult child to live with-after all, she wanted to run the world by age 3-she benefitted hugely by the fact that "both of my parents believed I was the smartest, most talented person." Knowing her parents had so much confidence in her abilities gave her the foundation she needed.

Other individuals who impacted Klawe were Tony Lau, her thesis advisor; Ron Graham, a fellow mathematician who presented her with many leadership opportunities in her field; her husband Nick Pippenger; her children; best friend Anita Borg; Telle Whitney, Jennifer Chayes, and Sheryl Sandberg.

In addition to the stories Klawe shared about these individuals, she spoke passionately about the impact her students have made on her. Even in a mentoring role where President Klawe is the mentor, she believes "I learn as much from them as they do from me." Her relationships do not end when students graduate; Klawe sees them as part of her family. Klawe says, "I feel extremely fortunate to have this incredibly rich network of people whom I genuinely love and care for, and who I know feel the same way about me."

Advice for young women

When asked what advice she would give to young women in STEM, President Klawe gave us the advice she gives "to everyone-young or old." She says "pick a good problem to work on. Recruit a team of people who will help you, build a network around yourself, and persist in the face of failure, because if it's a good problem to work on, it's hard. Be willing to renegotiate the strategies you are using to attack the problem. Finally, be willing to ask for help-that is one of the biggest things I've really realized in the last few years." Judging from her passion and success, we believe this is excellent advice and agree that it truly works for everyone.

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