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Alums named to ‘Top 50 Women in Tech’

Howard ’93, Lou Jepsen ’96, boyd ’00 challenge structural barriers, improve tech innovation

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, March 8, 2019

(from left to right) Ayanna Howard '93, danah boyd '00 and Mary Lou Jepsen '96 were named to Forbes Magazine's latest list of Top 50 Women in Tech.

Forbes Magazine’s latest list of “Top 50 Women in Tech” featured three University alums ­­— all of whom challenged structural barriers and drove technological innovation to new heights.

A roboticist, entrepreneur and educator focused on human-robot interactions, machine learning and artificial intelligence, Ayanna Howard ’93 is now Chair of the School of Interactive Computing and Director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is also a co-founder of Zyrobotics, a Georgia Tech VentureLab company. While a Senior Robotics Researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, she developed the “SnoMote” robot for conducting research in challenging environments such as Arctic glaciers. Now, she is working toward educational solutions using “theatric robotics” to engage children with diverse learning styles and mobility limitations.

When she came to the University to study engineering, Howard saw the Open Curriculum and S/NC grading option as an opportunity to explore disciplines she would not have tried otherwise, such as African dance and poetry. “It allowed me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I would have never had done that if I had to worry about my grades,” she said. This comfort allowed her to later take risks in her career, she added. “I don’t have fears coming into an environment where I don’t know as much as I want to. But I’m fully confident that I’m going to learn … because I’ve been trained that way.”

Although Howard said she never had female mentors at the University and occasionally felt out of place in her undergraduate program, these challenges did not prevent her from succeeding in a male-dominated industry, like tech. “This is the world and you’re used to it,” she said. Despite her acceptance of the tech industry’s realities, Howard still hopes to improve the cultural gender biases in her field. “It’s subtle and it’s hard to realize it’s there,” she said of the male-dominated space. “It’s like dying by a million paper cuts.”

Howard is also working to address the gender biases that exist in tech products that people use every day. Through her ongoing research, which she began in 2016 at Georgia Tech, Howard hopes to detect and eliminate implicit biases found in software systems — everything from small apps on smartphones to artificial intelligence algorithms that power organizations and industries.

Reflecting on her own success, Howard encourages undergraduates to feel optimistic about the future and consider how their choices will improve the environment for others. In addition, Howard said that women should consider how their entry into a male-dominated field could convince other women to do the same. “If you even kind of want to do this, it’s literally your responsibility because it will make the world a better place. … We need to get to the point where we have good representation.”

Mary Lou Jepsen ’87 PhD ’96 — an innovator, leader and inventor in consumer hardware, display technology, electrical engineering and healthcare — similarly emphasized the importance of female-to-female support in the workplace. Throughout her time at the University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and during her 20-year career, Jepsen wrote that she never had a female professor or supervisor around to call a mentor. “Never once. My female mentors were (and are) my peers. … They can help you find ways through whatever you are facing.”

After teaching herself calculus in the seventh grade, Jepsen chose to attend the University because she wanted the same freedom afforded to her during grade school. “The schools just let me keep studying what I was interested in. The University offered the potential of continuation of this approach,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. At the University, she concentrated in electrical engineering and art, then went on to earn ScM degrees at MIT in both electrical engineering and computational holography. Jepsen then returned to the University to earn a PhD in Photonics, studying optical physics.

Since then, she has led technology teams at Google, Facebook, Oculus and Intel, working at the forefront of display technology and pioneering the worldwide adoption of several consumer technologies such as HDTV. Now, Jepsen’s startup, Openwater, is developing a portable electronics device that combines infrared light capabilities with holographic technology to produce more precise and accurate images than an fMRI, one of the most common imaging technologies used in the medical industry today. Along with the Forbes Top 50 Women in Technology list, Jepsen has been named a member of TIME magazine’s “Time 100,” a list of the most influential people in the world, and a CNN Top 10 Thinker.

danah boyd ’00’s interest in technology began when she discovered the internet after her brother occupied the landline to play video games. “I was annoyed that I couldn’t make phone calls with friends, so I marched into his room one afternoon and he started showing me Usenet,” a popular network in the 1980’s and 1990’s, she wrote in an email to The Herald. “I realized the internet was made of people.”

She decided to chat with random strangers online, finding enjoyment in late night conversations with “self-identified geeks, freaks and queers.”

“I identify as all three so I was in my comfort zone. … (It was) lots of late nights, lots of crazy interactions,” she wrote.

A long way from fighting her brother for phone time, boyd is a leading technologist, social entrepreneur and educator whose work explores the relationship between technology and society. As Principal Researcher at Microsoft, visiting professor at New York University, the founder and president of Data & Society and a research affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, boyd also serves on the board of the Crisis Text Line, a free 24/7 suicide crisis text line available across the United States. Her book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” addresses several myths about teen social media use and how social media affects quality of life.

Though she is now at the top of the tech world, boyd did not come to College Hill intending to study computer science. It was through her advisor, Professor of Computer Science Andries van Dam, that she was inspired to take an introductory computer science course. “So many faculty influenced my life at the University and beyond, but Andy shaped my career path unlike anyone else. He enabled me to do interdisciplinary work (and) to ask infuriating questions. He introduced me to so many people in the tech industry … And whenever I fell down, whenever I messed up, he was there to pick me up,” she wrote.

boyd graduated from the University with a degree in computer science and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Media Arts at MIT and Sciences and a PhD in Information Sciences at University of California, Berkeley.

But even with early mentors and a strong start in her career, boyd has experienced challenges. She recounts several instances of discrimination in her career, beginning from her time at the University. “A group of fellow students decided to threaten and harass me and my peers to encourage us to leave computer science … I was actively excluded from job opportunities,” she wrote. “Harassment and cruelty … (are) basically the story of my early career. And there are lots of scars, so many scars.”

boyd stressed the challenges ahead for underrepresented groups and underscored the importance of support networks. “Those who are overrepresented have a responsibility to fight on behalf of those who are underrepresented. (And) I’m not going to cherry-coat what it’s like for underrepresented folks. It’s a fight. And there are many things that can help in that fight. Having strong mentors, building networks, finding spaces that feel right. … I strongly believe it’s worth it,” she wrote.

A previous version of  this article stated that Mary Lou Jepsen graduated from Brown in 1996. In fact, she graduated from Brown in 1987 and obtained her PhD from Brown in 1996. The Herald regrets the error.