MIT’s Rising Stars conference encourages top women in EECS to become professors

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November 18, 2013

Rising Star participants were welcomed at the MIT Stata Center on Nov. 4, 2013 for a full two day workshopBy Lauren Clark

Pursuing a faculty position can be intimidating, even for a top researcher such as Aditi Muralidharan. She earned her bachelor’s in physics and in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT in 2008 and is a PhD student at the University of California-Berkeley.

“You need a lot of credentials, and you’re never sure if you’re actually good enough,” she said. Industry careers are easier to launch, she added, because “companies recruit you. Universities don’t.”

While that contrast reflects the fact that there are more jobs in industry than academia, universities do work to attract the most talented faculty—and they want to expand the historically low numbers of women in their science and engineering departments.

That’s how Muralidharan recently wound up at MIT with 40 other elite female PhDs and postdoctoral candidates from around the country for a gathering, now in its second year, called Rising Stars in EECS. She presented her innovative research on text analysis in the humanities and social sciences. And she networked with colleagues, as well as faculty from MIT and elsewhere, who represented a range of EECS disciplines rarely encountered in one place.

The annual event, which MIT EECS department head Anantha Chandrakasan initiated, invites top graduate and postdoc women for two days of scientific discussions and informal sessions aimed at navigating the early stages of an academic career. They participate in panel discussions with faculty that cover topics such as the interview and promotion processes, and balancing research, teaching and life outside work.

“We hope that the participants get to know each other and form connections that will persist through their careers,” said Chandrakasan, who worked with faculty from prominent EECS-connected laboratories to organize the event: the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Microsystems Technology Laboratories and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.

The opportunity to connect with female colleagues can be dispiritingly infrequent because of the dearth of women in EECS.

If events like Rising Stars existed when MIT professor and MacArthur award-winner Dina Katabi was embarking on her academic career, she would have jumped at the chance to attend. When she was starting out, she said, “You’d be lucky if you saw a woman in the corridor. I’ve given talks where the audience was all male.”

“The scarcity of women EECS faculty impacts all of us,” added Judy L. Hoyt, EECS professor and associate director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories. “Diversity is critical to the health of the profession.”

Katabi and Hoyt found the attendees’ oral presentations and posters impressive. A number of MIT faculty members turned out to interact with the presenters during the afternoon poster session on Rising Stars’ first day.

MIT School of Engineering Dean Ian Waitz, who launched a program similar to Rising Stars in 2008 when he was head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, shared his colleagues’ admiration in his welcome remarks on the second day of the event. He told the attendees that they are among the best in their schools and future leaders of their fields. “It is an honor to have you visit MIT,” he said. “I hope that in a small way we can help accelerate you even further on the very strong professional trajectories you are on.”

EECS Department Head Anantha Chandrakasan welcomed the 40 Rising Stars participants on Nov. 4 encouraging them to build new connections across the broad field of EECS.Cornell University PhD candidate Nan Rong, left, and MIT Microsystems Technology Laboratories postdoctoral associate Shaloo Rakheja discuss their work at the poster session.Jessica Tran (left), PhD candidate in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Washington discussed her work with MIT EECS Professor Judy Hoyt.Rising Stars Yemaya Bordain (left), PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discussed her work with Columbia University postdoctoral associate in electrical engineering Maria Gorlatova.Prof. Silvio Micali discusses the research that Rising Star Olga Russakovsky, Stanford University PhD candidate. Rising Star Shang Shang, PhD candidate at Princeton University is standing in the background.Caroline P. Lai (left), postdoctoral researcher with the Photonic Systems Group at the Tyndall National Institute in Ireland learned about the research of fellow Rising Star Yafang Tan, PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Sarah Loos, PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University described her research for a visitor to the poster session on Nov. 4, held in the Research Laboratory of Electronics Haus conference room.Ruta Mehta (left), postdoctoral fellow at the College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology explained her work to EECS professors Rob Miller (right, blue shirt) and Ron Rivest (right, foreground).Prof. Chandrakasan, right, listens to Franzi Roesner discuss the work of Jessica Tran (on left).UC Berkeley EECS Postdoctoral researcher Cindy Rubio-Gonzales discussed her work with EE Prof. Silvio Micali.MIT EECS professor Fredo Durand discussed the work by UC Berkeley PhD candidate Erin Carson.Rising Stars Sha Huang, left, MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics and EECS PhD and SJ. Clair Hur, Junior Fellow at Harvard's Rowland Institute discuss Huang's work as EECS Prof. Gerald Sussman observed in background.

Yemaya Bordain, who uses innovative techniques in atomic force microscopy to evaluate and improve nanoscale electronic devices, said that she was one of only a few women in her PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the first few years. She was also the only African-American woman. “I know what lonely is,” she quipped. “That, coupled with the challenges, such as getting tenure, that all junior faculty face, make pursuing an academic path seem daunting,” she said.

But during a poster session at which attendees presented research encompassing everything from aircraft control to image processing to medical procedures, Bordain was inspired to think seriously about a career in academia.

“The people who are around me right now are going to lead research and technology in the coming years,” she said. “I think that women and people with diverse backgrounds have a unique perspective. And I think you see that here.”

The conference attendees were unanimously appreciative of the breadth of research they encountered at Rising Stars. Tamara Broderick of Berkeley embraced the opportunity to venture outside her discipline, machine learning. “What’s so nice about [the conference] is that I get to learn about a huge array of different research that I normally wouldn’t be exposed to,” she said.

Broderick is not unfamiliar with MIT, having participated as a high-school student in the inaugural year of the Women’s Technology Program in 2002. The program, whose executive director, Cynthia Skier, spoke at the conference, has been effective at channeling women into the science and engineering career pipeline.

One of the goals of Rising Stars is to strengthen that pipeline by helping women in EECS develop an esprit de corps. Gillat Kol, who studies theoretical computer science and math at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, found it refreshing to be among a group of researchers with whom she could discuss issues that don’t usually come up in a professional setting but that are nonetheless significant.

“Sometimes, we have trouble asking for things,” she said of herself and her female colleagues. “For example, I hate asking for recommendation letters, because I know it’s extra work for the letter writers. But when you hear that other people experience the same thing, you feel like you are not alone. You see how they manage that problem, and you say, ‘Maybe I can do that too.’”

Several of the women said that the schedule flexibility and intellectual freedom of an academic career appealed to them. Franziska “Franzi” Roesner plans to apply for faculty positions when she completes her PhD work in digital security and privacy at the University of Washington next year.

“It’s good to get some perspectives from different people, and it’s nice to hear and see examples of women who have been successful,” she said.

One of those examples was Shafi Goldwasser, an EECS professor in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. This year, she won what is considered the Nobel Prize for computer science, the Turing Award, for her pioneering work in the fields of cryptography and complexity theory. At a dinner during Rising Stars, she discussed the evolution and impact of the field of cryptography, as well as the excitement of research.

Another successful engineer, Christine Ortiz, gave a lunchtime talk about a career guided by intellectual curiosity. The MIT dean for graduate education and professor of materials science and engineering said that after watching her parents, an electrical engineer and a computer health care specialist, spend their careers in industry, she decided early on to pursue a career in academia.

“I wanted creative freedom, and I wanted to collaborate with scientists from other countries and cultures,” she explained. She described her research on the biomechanics of ancient fish skeletons and exoskeletons, which informs technology in areas such as tissue repair and military armor. She also related how she parlayed fellowships early in her career to stints at laboratories around the world.

Muralidharan was inspired by Goldwasser and Ortiz. “It’s really cool to be a professor,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a great lifestyle. Hearing about it and connecting with other [likeminded] people makes me feel like it’s a viable career path for me.”

Physics professor Edmund Bertschinger, who is also MIT’s newly appointed community and equity officer, noted the promise of both the attendees and the program itself. “It’s exciting to see the talent assembled in this room,” he said. “I thank [the organizers] for their encouragement and advancement of women. Efforts like these are a model for the Institute.”

In addition to MIT, Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Washington and the Institute of Advanced Study, invitees came from Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Cornell University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, New York University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of California-San Diego, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Tyndall National Institute of Ireland.