For Three Decades, Computer Science’s Susan Davidson Has Led by Example

PHILADELPHIA — After more than 30 years on the job, Susan Davidson has some perspective on her discipline.

As a faculty member in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, she has been here for the rise of the personal computer and the later popping of the dotcom bubble. She has seen computers infiltrate other academic disciplines and was there at the founding of what would become Penn’s Center for Bioinformatics, the kind of computer science that enabled the Human Genome Project and continues to revolutionize the biological sciences.

Davidson has also seen the demographic shifts that rose and fell with technology’s boom-and-bust cycles. Even with the ubiquity of Apple, Google and Facebook, computer science remains one of the least gender-equal academic disciplines in the nation. According to the National Science Foundation, while women are starting to outpace men in graduate programs in subjects like biology and psychology, they make up only about a quarter of equivalent programs for computer science.  

In an effort to change that at Penn, Davidson created Advancing Women in Engineering during her tenure as the Engineering School’s deputy dean. The program provides services, guidance and mentorship designed to attract and retain female students at all levels of the school.

But despite her leadership and experience, Davidson still considers herself an unlikely role model

“I blithely sailed through my career not really noticing that I was in a minority, not feeling like I was being mistreated,” Davidson said. “When one of my Ph.D. committee members told me, ‘You can’t have a career and a family’, I didn't take it personally, and I didn't believe it for a second. It went right over my head.”

The child of a mathematician and a plant scientist, Davidson had strong role models herself.  

“There was clearly the unspoken expectation that [higher education] was valued in my family, but I could also observe my parents,” Davidson said. “ I saw my father had a really nice life; he often worked from home and was very happy. And my mother had time to raise a family.

“Overall it was clear that one could balance life and an academic career, and that career was pretty fun.”

Davidson first encountered computer science as an undergraduate mathematics student at Cornell University. She took her first course in the subject at the behest of her sister, who was studying biochemistry and saw computation as the future of the field, and she fell in love. The more concrete applications inherent to the field were a welcome change from the mind-boggling abstractions of pure mathematics. She pursued that love further, focusing her research on databases — imposing order and relationships on massive sets of information — and turned that research into a masters and doctorate in computer science at Princeton University.  

After brushing off the committee member who scoffed at her plans for balancing family and career, Davidson began teaching at Penn in 1982. But it was then she saw the hurdles the committee member thought would be insurmountable.    

“This was at a time when I had two babies and a father who died within my first six years at Penn, and also when there was no tenure clock extension for women with children,” Davidson said. “It wasn’t easy. I just had to put my nose to the grindstone.”

Her teaching and research eventually attracted the attention of two research scientists at the Wistar Institute, Chris Overton and David Searls.  They were tired of biology as what they called a small-scale “cookbook science” involving test tubes and Petri dishes and saw a tsunami of data produced by new high-throughput experimental techniques headed towards their field.

Through Davidson’s database and other computer science courses they took, they recognized the potential for scaling up biology research through in silico experiments.  Together with other members of the database group, they began a collaboration that would continue through what was then the greatest melding of biology and computer science in history: the Human Genome Project.  

“As part of an international team to sequence chromosome 22,” Davidson said, “they needed to integrate all of this information, but it was really difficult because everyone stored their data in very different ways: different representations, formats and database systems. So we started talking about techniques they could use or systems that we could develop that would help them integrate the information.”

Together with statistician Warren Ewens, Davidson and Overton would become the founding co-directors of the Center for Bioinformatics in 1997.  This interdisciplinary center, representing a collaboration of scientists across the schools of Medicine, Arts and Sciences and Engineering, paved the way for the Penn’s achievements in computational biology and its Genomic Frontiers Institute.

But while Davidson advanced her own career during this period, she saw the number of women Ph.D. candidates at Penn dropping. With the dotcom bubble inflating in the early part of the century and enrollment in the department at an all time high, increasing gender disparities could not be ignored.  

Department manager Rita Powell, who was also studying at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, was instrumental in shedding light on this issue. Through her dissertation research on why the department was having difficulty retaining female students, Powell provided its leadership with ideas for how to make inroads on this problem. By creating social and networking events, opportunities for mentorship and even changes to the way introductory courses were run, the department saw the tide begin to turn.

When Davidson became deputy dean in 2006, she knew it was incumbent upon her to take up this challenge on a larger scale.

“I saw that we were not the only ones with these problems,” Davidson said. “Even bioengineering, which enrolls a lot of women, had problems with retention.”

With help from Powell, Davidson formed a plan to improve the experience of women in the Engineering School but needed additional support to put that plan into action. That opportunity presented itself in 2007, when a mechanical-engineering alumna, looking for a way to do the same, gave a $400,000 gift to the school.

That funding paved the way for the Advancing Women in Engineering program, overseen by faculty from each department in the school, as well as Vice Dean Joe Sun.  More important, it enabled the hire of a full-time staff director, Michele Grab. Beyond services for engineering students of all levels, AWE runs recruitment initiatives, like the popular summer program for middle school girls, PennGEMS, and retention initiatives, like a pre-orientation program for incoming freshmen women.

Jointly with professor Yasmin Kafai of the Graduate School of Education, Davidson also led a National Science Foundation-funded “Broadening Participation in Computer Science” project that used a “cascading mentoring” model. There, college, high school and middle school students learned the basics of computer science with and from each other, with a focus on reaching women and under-represented minorities.

The idea of cascading mentoring helps in both directions, according to Davidson.

“Not only did our undergraduates feel like they had an impact on somebody's life, it also reinforced their own understanding of the field and helped them develop self-confidence,” she said.

Changing attitudes about work-life balance, in both men and women, are also pushing the field towards equality, but nothing replaces outreach toward the next generation of computer scientists. Drawing from her own formative experiences, Davidson knows the importance of introducing role models and possible career paths to young women early and often.

“I was snookered into computer science, I fell into it and fell in love with it,” Davidson said. “I think a lot of other women could be snookered, too, so our job is to expose them to this field by whatever it takes.”