Professor Adriana Compagnoni Sets Example for Women in Computer Science

1/18/2012

Recent data from the National Science Foundation shows that in 2009, less than 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 28 percent of master’s degrees and 23 percent of doctoral degrees in computer science were awarded to women. Adriana Compagnoni, Associate Professor of Computer Science in the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science at Stevens, wants those statistics to change.

“If you reduce the pool in half, you are only going to get half the best people, half the best ideas, and half the best outcomes,” she said.

For her part, Compagnoni has spent her working life pushing the boundaries of the field.

When she finished high school in Argentina in 1984, most of the universities in Compagnoni’s home country had not yet established computer science programs, so although she was very interested in studying the emerging discipline of informatics, Compagnoni entered college with the intention of becoming a mathematics major. Then in 1986 the government of Argentina helped to establish the Escuela Superior Latinoamericana de Informática (ESLAI), attracting students from throughout Latin America to study computer science. Compagnoni transferred in and was among the first generations to formally study the subject – in fact none of her professors had degrees in computer science. She graduated with ESLAI’s second class in 1989 with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

Next, in 1999, Compagnoni made history at Stevens by becoming the first female faculty member in the Computer Science department, and later, the first to obtain tenure. She joined the department after receiving her PhD in Mathematics and Computer Science from Nijmegen University in the Netherlands and working as a post-doc at Cambridge University and the University of Edinburgh. Just a few years after moving with her husband to the United States and joining the Stevens community, she was honored with a National Science Foundation Early Career Award in recognition of her outstanding work as a young researcher on secure systems. Today, she teaches four courses and also conducts interdisciplinary research on computational biology, which involves the development and application of data-analytical and theoretical methods, computational modeling and simulation techniques to the study of biological and biomedical systems.

Despite her personal successes, Compagnoni believes the underrepresentation of women in the field of computer science is a self-fulfilling prophecy, an assertion she recently heard Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg make a keynote speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

“Sheryl Sandberg said that the reason women don’t go into computer science is because women don’t go into computer science, and I couldn’t agree more,” said Compagnoni. “There is a lack of community in the field; a lack of role models, mentors and sponsors for women.”

For this reason, Compagnoni is ecstatic that Stevens President Nariman Farvardin has expressed a commitment to advancing the number and role of women at Stevens, as students, faculty members and administrators.

“It is very exciting that President Farvardin is behind that cause and wants Stevens to become renowned for its welcoming and nurturing environment for women,” she said.

She is also thankful to have had the early-career support of the late Professor Stephen Bloom, the head of Stevens’ Computer Science department when Compagnoni was hired as the lone woman on the team. Professor Bloom immediately welcomed Compagnoni as an equal, was extremely flexible when she went on maternity leave for the first time, and guided her through the tenure process.

“His door was always open. Anytime I had a question or a concern, he was always available with advice,” Compagnoni said.

Today, Compagnoni tries to take the same approach with her students – male or female. She’s currently mentoring a female Computer Science PhD candidate, Vishakha Sharma, who calls Compagnoni her “role model.”

“She is one professor who I always look up to,” said Sharma. “She always encourages girls in the computing world.”

Stevens students Kelly Freed and Laura Cerrito agree.

“Professor Compagnoni cares about her students,” Freed said. “She is passionate about the subjects she teaches and inspires students to be as well. Outside the classroom, she is very accessible, constantly discussing post-graduate options and helping students find opportunities.”

“She brings to the classroom a unique spin on difficult concepts and she has inspired me to chase my dream of being a female computer scientist,” added Cerrito.

For full coverage of women at Stevens, visit www.stevens.edu/women.