Sunday 25th November 2012

by sophie

This Thanksgiving dinner, something miraculous happened: I finally felt smart enough to talk to my dad about science.

Now, granted, lest you think I have uncommunicative parents, my dad has been trying to talk to me about science since birth (at 5: do you want to build a computer board with me? now wouldn’t that be fun? me: no! i want to play with Barbies). However, it took me a full 20 years of life and 2 and counting years of Ivy league schooling to finally, finally know what he was talking about.

I feel like this monumental event speaks volumes about a number of important things.

First: that barriers to entry and barriers to culture in science, especially computer science, are, as previously suspected, very very high. I talked a little bit about the use of jargon and how it can discourage many new learners before, especially newcomers and women. Keep in mind that my dad is probably the nicest guy I know, and extremely enthusiastic in trying to get his children to be interested in his work, yet previous to this fall, even when I had been coding for more than a year, it was still intimidating and tough to talk to him about my work.

Second: on the power of being a role model and a huge influence on one’s life without ever telling someone what to do. Growing up, I spent a great deal more time with my mother (who didn’t work) than my father (who is a night owl and worked way past my elementary school bedtime). Neither of my parents told me what I should study or what sort of career to pursue, and my dad especially never tried to push any sort of academic dogma on me. I always felt that he was incredibly smart but that coding and computer science were something I had neither the aptitude or interest in: plus, since my parent did it, it must be, in some way, decidely uncool.

Fast-foward 20 years and he has two daughters in the hard sciences: one is a ph.d student at Princeton and another in Columbia engineering school. It’s especially fun to see how much my area of interest turned out so similiar to my father’s work: both of us are either studying or working in the field of Natural Language Processing, and in fact, I am taking a class under the direction of one of his former colleagues during the glory days of Bell Labs. Note that, being stubborn and independent, I never, ever talked to my dad much about what I was studying at school or doing at my summer jobs. He didn’t suggest NLP or AI to me; I just sort of fell into it, and loved it. An anecdote to the power of being a good role model. (Cathy talks a bit about a similiar topic on her great post, on the making of a girl nerd.)

Or, perhaps the apple really does never fall far from the tree.

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