Monday, June 23, 2008

Women In Theory workshop

I went to a workshop for women in theoretical computer science this past week.  It's actually what spurred me to finally make this blog.  One of the workshop organizers asked if anyone wanted to blog the conference... and I realized that none of the main theory blogs are written by women.  She asked if we wanted to guest post for Bill and Lance. I'm sure we have enough to say so that we shouldn't just be guest blogging - I know I do.

The workshop itself was incredible. For years I've been wishing that I knew more women in theory. More is, of course, a relative term, but should have been easily achievable since I only knew a handful (five?). There were about 40 students and 10 speakers (from academia and research labs) at the workshop - that's definitely more than a handful! And it was a wonderful environment to be in - incredibly smart women talking about theoretical computer science. Anyone doubting that the women in this field are brilliant would be corrected quickly - how could they not be with speakers like Cynthia Dwork, Eva Tardos, and Shafi Goldwasser (recent ACM Athena lecturer winner!). These are of course just a selection of the women there, and the students (from all the top ranking CS universities - MIT, CMU, Berkeley, Cornell, ...) were also brilliant. It was all-around inspiring and motiving (at times, all I wanted more than to be listening to the current speaker was time to do my own research).

WiT included both technical talks and "women's issues" (it's really not the right phrase for them, but I'm at a loss for a better one) talks, in just the right balance. At past women in computer science events that I've been to, the women's talks start to become overwhelming and obvious, and while I get a lot out of those conferences and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to go to them, there end up being some sessions which I don't find helpful. WiT on the other hand had only three of these sessions (work/life balance, how to give a presentation, and how to negotiate), and they were each useful and well-presented. I'll talk more about these in a later post.

The technical talks made up the bulk of the conference, and these provided a nice overview of the field, but not just an overview as each speaker also spoke about their current research. Sadly, there were no talks in computational geometry, but this did mean that much of each talk was new to me. Joan Feigenbaum gave a nice talk including an overview of onion routing (also seen on the episode of Numb3rs aired the following Friday - Killer Chat). Tal Malkin gave an intro to crypto, which was especially exciting since I've never had a crypto class. In fact, many of the talks were crypto or privacy based and a similar definition of privacy/secure encryption/etc was given in a number of talks: The algorithm is secure/private/etc. if an adversary observing the state before the algorithm doesn't learn too much by observing the state after the algorithm. Cynthia pointed out some problems with this definition... but I'm afraid I don't remember the details of her objections. In fact, though I won't discuss them all here, all but one of the talks were excellent. Without naming names, I'll say that that one was presented very well, but undershot the audience - I'm sure we all already knew what a correlation is. To be fair, she's in industry and this is likely a standard talk she gives to prospective undergrads.

The other thing that was great about the technical talks was that each speaker attended talks other than her own. Which meant that we got to hear them ask questions too. It was wonderful to see a model of how to ask questions politely and sensitively without apologizing or dumbing yourself down. This is something I think many men could use practice on as well, but I think is especially important for women who often err on the side of apologizing and seeming stupid in order to not offend. It should be obvious that in a professional setting this is not a good strategy for us, but it's a very hard line to walk.

The conference as a whole was absolutely inspiring. And a breathe of fresh air that I needed without knowing it. I do hope it continues in future years.


Sharon said...

Hi! I'm a woman in theoretical computer science too. Just thought I'd say hello!

Anonymous said...

Hey Sorelle!
So glad you started this blog. My adviser just sent me a link to it. (No idea how he was pointed to it.) I hope you keep it up! I'll keep reading if you keep writing...