Women in the Academy: Cynthia Lee

By March 30, 2011

Cynthia has a Ph.D. in Computer Science (2009). She currently works as an independent researcher on projects in Computer Science pedagogy, and occasionally teaches undergraduate courses. She blogs about Mormon life and its intersections with pop culture and feminist issues at ByCommonConsent.

How did you become interested in your area (s) of expertise/specialization?

Like many investigations, my dissertation work began as frustration with the way things were done at the lab where I was performing repetitive tasks for my advisor. My job consisted of shepherding dozens of hardware benchmarking tasks through the queues at major supercomputer centers across the country. Supercomputers typically have heavy demand and support the work of hundreds or thousands of different scientists, all vying for shares of the resource. I often felt the systems for scheduling jobs at these centers were opaque, unpredictable and unresponsive. I spent the next 6 years devising ways to fix those problems.

Scheduling is a fun area to work in, because it reaches into such a variety of questions and modes of inquiry. Part of it is pure theory, for which I have great aesthetic love. Part of it is trying to understand the people involved?administrators, users, funding agencies. A particular problem other researchers had long bemoaned was that information users provide to schedulers is generally terribly inaccurate. Are users motivated to be deceptive in their interaction with schedulers? Are they just lazy, or uninformed? Nobody had ever just asked them about why their input was so inaccurate, so we did. Then all these findings need to be integrated into designing a solution, an applied algorithms problem. In other words, in what ways can schedulers be redesigned to gently improve user behavior, and be more responsive to users? It?s not every Computer Scientist who gets to spend part of her day fondly recalling her study of Literature in asking, ?Are users inherently good or evil?? and then the rest of the day reading Garey and Johnson [1].

What are you currently studying, or what are some of your current projects (papers, books, dissertations, etc.)?

My most recent research projects have been in Computer Science pedagogy. I successfully redesigned the Theory of Computability course at UCSD to use Peer Instruction. In Peer Instruction classes, each lecture slide is just a multiple choice question, and students learn by working through the questions themselves and in small groups. The instructor is there to provide the mise en scène, to direct and respond to the discussion, but allows students to do most of the acting. To help the instructor know when and how students need instructor guidance, students use wireless ?clicker? devices that communicate with the instructor?s laptop.

Peer Instruction was popularized in post-secondary Physics education by Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur some ten years ago, but there are only and handful of researchers/practitioners exploring its use in Computer Science. My most recent work reports on use of Peer Instruction in a Theory of Computation course, to induce students to use proof arguments as a natural part of arguing amongst themselves about the right answers.

What has your experience been like as a woman in the academy?

Computer Science is notoriously lacking in women. While women earn a majority of all undergraduate degrees, and have made enormous gains in Law, Medicine, and other fields, Computer Science has not only failed to see similar improvements, but has actually gone in reverse. In 2009, women comprised just 11.3% of those graduating with bachelor?s degrees in Computer Science, down from 30-40% in the mid-1980?s [2]. This can make for a challenging environment at times, and I feel a duty to devote a certain amount of my time to outreach, retention and women?s issues advocacy. But typically, when I am working, I am not aware of being a ?woman in the academy.? I?m just a scholar like any other.

One thing that allowed me to set aside concerns about my minority status was my good fortune in having an exceptionally supportive advisor. His inexhaustible patience and encouragement were vital to my continued success after the birth of my twins during my third year of graduate work. I?ve seen some women smoothly handle a birth or even two during the graduate years, but a complicated pregnancy followed by caring for two colicky newborns made it very difficult for me. I used to joke that I was the only grad student in the department who found working in the lab on my dissertation to be the relaxing part of my day.

Being a woman in the academy has benefits for mothers: schedule flexibility, extended leave of absence policies, ability to work from home, and other accommodations. My children love their occasional visits to campus with me–seeing the interesting architecture and sculptures, and eating at their favorite campus food court spot. They?ve even accompanied me on travel to present a conference paper. (n.b.: Flying alone with 18 month old twins wasn?t the best idea I?ve ever had. But they had fun with Grandma at the resort.) I am proud of the example I?m setting for them, and I think my experiences and opportunities have often been enriching for them.

Who are some people (living or dead) in your field you admire? Why?
I?m very pleased to be able to say that I have lunched with Fran Allen [3], the first female recipient of the Turing Award (like the Nobel, for Computer Scientists). Allen had a long and distinguished career in compiler research at IBM, where she was named an IBM Fellow, complete with certificate recognizing the recipient for ?his accomplishments.? Allen obviously had to be very focused on her work to achieve so much, and during years when she was such a lone trailblazer. So I have particular admiration for the time and care she takes in fostering community amongst women in the field, and reaching out to younger women just getting started (e.g., having lunch with all the female graduate students in our department).

Speaking of the Turing Award, another person I admire is Alan Turing, known as the Father of Modern Computing. He was an extraordinary genius, known for his exceptionally imaginative theoretical work and proofs. Among his accomplishments: he was on the team that cracked the Germans? Enigma code during WWII and was thus instrumental the Allied victory, he conceived the basic design that all computers use to this day, he proved there are mathematical problems no computer could ever solve, and he formulated a theory of Artificial Intelligence that lives on today as a $1million prize for a computer that can pass the Turing Test. Tragically, we lost Turing at just 41 years old. He committed suicide after being criminally prosecuted for homosexuality and forced to undergo chemical ?treatments.? In 2009, the British government formally apologized for its treatment of Turing. I think this is an important story to tell, as a reminder of the senseless and bitter fruits of hate.

For someone who is interested in studying what you do, what are some books you would recommend on the subject?

For inspiration I recommend:

  • Christine Alvarado?s chapter of Falling for Science: Objects in Mind, edited by Sherry Turkle (MIT Press, 2008). Alvarado describes how, as a child, she first explored mathematical and computing concepts such as recursion, exponents and divisibility by braiding the hair of her My Little Pony.
  • The Cuckoo?s Egg, by Cliff Stoll (Doubleday, 1989), was the first book I read about computers, and what sparked my fascination with wanting to be the kind of omniscient computer wizard people looked to for help deciphering them.

Right now most of what I?m reading is related to Theory of Computation, since that is what I?m teaching. While there are many fascinating reads on theory, this one is peerless and surprisingly accessible:

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter (Basic Books, 1979).

How might a better understanding of your field and/or research help a scholar of Mormonism?

There are often interesting computer science angles to the work the church does. Whether it be the recent revamping of the Family Search genealogy software, the mechanics of streaming general conference over the internet, the church?s search engine optimization efforts, the church?s ambitious social media projects, or fantasizing about a better software system for ward membership and financial clerks. Then there was the time I somehow connected Set Theory and Universal Turing Machines to a feminist dissection of gender discourse in General Conference.

[1] Garey, M. R. and D. S. Johnson. Computers and Intractability: A Guide to the Theory of NP-Completeness (W. H. Freeman, 1979).

[2] 2008-2009 Taulbee Survey

[3] Speaking of enriching experiences for my children that are available in connection with my work, they were also there at the lunch with Fran Allen.

Article filed under Gender Memory Miscellaneous Women in the Academy


  1. I’m excited to see this series continue. Thanks for your contribution, Cynthia.

    Comment by Christopher — March 30, 2011 @ 8:24 am

  2. An excellent interview. Thanks, edje and Cynthia.

    Those percentages on women with graduate degrees in CS are pretty discouraging.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 30, 2011 @ 10:12 am

  3. Cynthia, I have a tremendous amount of respect and envy for you and your mind. Delighted to see your comments here.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 30, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  4. Hooray for SB2!

    Cynthia, can you confirm or deny that Allen is a human?

    Comment by Steve Evans — March 30, 2011 @ 11:54 am

  5. I think Cynthia should be give a certificate for his participation at JI.

    Comment by Mark Brown — March 30, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  6. Great stuff. Hooray, Cynthia!

    Comment by ZD Eve — March 30, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  7. Cynthia’s da bom. Great interview.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 30, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  8. Outstanding and exemplary.

    Comment by smb — March 30, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  9. Wow Cynthia! I really think all the female grad students (and male too) are so lucky to have you around as an example.

    Comment by mmiles — March 30, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

  10. Brave, Cynthia, brave. It takes real courage to come here. Did you say where you did your Ph.D.? I did not see it.

    Comment by WVS — March 30, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

  11. […] L. gets a write up at the Juvenile Instructor. Good for you, […]

    Pingback by The Ridiculous and the Sublime – March 29-30, 2011 « The Ridiculous and the Sublime — March 31, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  12. Cynthia, my wife is a math teacher at a junior high school, and I took particular note of your Peer Instruction example. She uses the same technique heavily in her teaching, essentially using the students to teach each other. She gets great satisfaction out of seeing how the kids work together and interact to come up with creative solutions to math problems.

    Great interview all around.

    Comment by kevinf — March 31, 2011 @ 12:46 pm


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