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Winter welcome 2019

Think Broadly! Not Ballistically

By Ellen Merrick Petrill, ’77, ‘78

At the 14th annual Stanford Women Winter Welcome on Tuesday, January 22, 2019,  over 80 Stanford women came together to share stories, learn from leaders, and take away new friends and ideas for growth.  Faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and alumnae listened and talked with each other in the accommodating Vidalakis dining room, nurturing and growing the community of women at Stanford.
Our two distinguished speakers, Jennifer Widom, Dean of Engineering and Debra Satz, Dean of Humanities and Sciences, spoke about their personal paths and gave advice on broadening our thinking and actions.


Jennifer Widom is a computer scientist and Dean of Engineering and Professor in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. Prior to becoming Dean, she served as Computer Science Department Chair and School of Engineering Senior Associate Dean. Her research interests span many aspects of nontraditional data management.  She has taught classes on data, collaboration, all over the world.

Debra Satz is a philosopher and Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. She is Professor of Ethics in Society, and Professor of Philosophy and Political Science. She teaches courses in ethics, social and political philosophy, and philosophy of social science.

Jennifer Widom grew up in Santa Cruz, California, attended Santa Cruz High School and enjoyed marching band.  Because she liked it, she wanted to study music in college.  Jennifer’s supportive parents,  her father a professor at UC Santa Cruz and her mother a teacher, said, “OK with us.” Off she went to Indiana University School of Music for a Bachelor of Arts in Trumpet Performance (Classical).  There were few electives but one caught her attention:  computer applications for music research.  She used punch cards!  Jennifer enjoyed computer programming, took more classes and got a taste of research.  That led her to her next education experience:  Cornell University where she earned a PhD in Computer Science.

Jennifer met her husband in graduate school at Cornell.  After graduation, they accepted positions together at IBM Research Center in San Jose, CA.  Next, they joined the faculty of two major universities in the Bay Area:  Jennifer at Stanford, her husband at UC Berkeley.  They had two children and lived near Stanford.  Her husband had the difficult commute.  After 10 years, they decided they needed to relieve the commute pressure and live and work together at the same university.  Both universities offered the other spouse a position at that university.  They choose Stanford and moved into a home on campus.

Work-life balance for Jennifer and her husband was always guided by “family first.”  Jennifer explained, “When the kids needed me, I was always there.”  They each worked one day a week at home to be around the kids.  They volunteered at the kids’ schools and were very engaged.  “There were 20 years of not enough sleep, which has probably taken years off my life, but it was worth it!” she laughed. 

Family travel was a priority. They took trips during Christmas and summer breaks.  When the kids were 10 and 12, they took a year off and traveled the world.  

As her career progressed, Jennifer rose to chair of the computer science department at Stanford.  In 2017, she became dean of engineering.  “Now that we are empty nesters, and this job is 24×7, I love it!  It would not have been good when the children were young,” she revealed.

In 2011, Jennifer was a pioneer in MOOC (massive open online course) courses in databases. Combining her love of travel and the opportunity to reach many around the world, she has traveled to numerous countries offering short-courses, workshops, and roundtables on big data, design thinking & collaborative problem-solving, and women in technology.  She gave courses in 15 countries during her sabbatical in 2016-2017.

Jennifer’s work has influenced development of commercial data management and analysis tools over the years. Among numerous awards, Jennifer was named Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in Natural Science – Computer Science for 2000- 01.  Her father was named Guggenheim Fellow in math twice.

Debra Satz grew up in the Bronx in New York City.  Debra’s parents knew nothing about college and could provide no guidance.  She was good at math and science in her Bronx high school.  She used punch cards too!  She worried about moving far from home, so she attended college at City College of New York.  She earned a BA in Philosophy with emphasis on math.  Then Debra moved on to graduate school.

“By chance and luck,” Debra told us, “I entered MIT as a PhD student in the philosophy program with focus on math and logic.  In my advanced math classes, there were eleven-year-old kids sitting in the front row.  Their moms sat in the back. I was 10-times slower solving math problem than the 11-year-olds. It was intimidating.

“Because of that, I felt I wasn’t suited for math,” Debra divulged.  “I thought I should shift to philosophy.” Her parents didn’t know what a philosopher was.

She mused, “Although now that I have grown older and wiser, I think, ‘Did I have to make that shift?  Was speed at solving math problems critical?  Those kids could have burned out.  There were any number of reasons that could have led to me being a successful mathematician.  In any case, I have had a wonderful career as a philosopher,” Debra told us. 

Debra first lectured at Harvard, then became an assistant professor at Swarthmore.  A year later, Stanford wooed her to California where she progressed from assistant professor to professor in 2007.  

Her parents didn’t know that Stanford was not in Connecticut.  They didn’t know that Stanford, California was not close to Los Angeles where relatives lived.  When she told them she taught four classes a year, they thought she had a part time position.  
“I never would have imagined I’d be a college professor and at Stanford.  As a first generation student, this is amazing.  I never thought I’d be dean.  This was an alien idea. It was the previous dean, Richard Saller, who convinced me.”  Debra was senior associate dean working with Dean Saller.   “As dean, there is constant learning, to learn what colleagues are working on.  And as dean, you can make changes, pull levers!  It may be intimidating but you can create public good!”  enthused Debra. “However, I admit, I am already looking forward to the faculty job again.”

Debra claims she doesn’t have good life balance. “Not like Jennifer,” she admitted.  She met her husband, also on the faculty at Stanford, on campus.

Debra told us, “I have not lost sight of where I came from. I write as if my parents were the audience.  I started a program to teach women released from prison, co-founding it with colleague Professor Rob Reich.   Stanford faculty members teach classes each quarter to addicts released from prison.” 

Debra has won many awards, including the Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest award for teaching at Stanford.  

Q.  Career fairs want to hire computer science graduates!  
Debra: Students are ballistic; they focus solely on their major.  While students are amazing — they are off and running — our job is to slow students down to help them think broadly, to throw some sand in the works.   What if you come across something that makes you think broadly?  What even greater works could be done then? 
Undergraduate transcripts are looking like graduate student transcripts these days; the students are becoming so specialized. At Stanford, we are rethinking major requirements to give more opportunity for breadth.
Jennifer:  I went from music to computer science.  Now, students are more driven and, as Debra said, more ballistic.  Not many would make the change I did.  But more exploration is coming soon through changes in requirements in breadth.   
We are interested in bringing the Humanities & Sciences and Engineering schools together.  A new class on ethics in computers enticed 300 students.  Stanford is unique in that it has the medical school along side the engineering and humanities and ethics.  Stanford is an ideal place to accomplish more collaboration, collaboration that can make a difference.
We are creating technology that is changing the world.  We haven’t thought things through, but we’re optimistic that more engagement can help society catch up to technology.

Q.  Did you know your new field right away?
Debra:  It was those 11-year-olds!
Jennifer: It was an exploration, not a concrete thought of “Ah, THIS is my future.” 

Q.  Can one have an academic life while not in academia? 
Debra: Yes!  Ideas matter.  Learn from people.  Get involved.  Activism.  Use the academic mindset – be open and curious.  Put your intelligence and passion to work.  Having kids is a constant teacher!

Q. What is your advice for students with multiple talents?
Jennifer:  Keep doing both!  Don’t be too narrowly focused. 
Debra: Times (or perceptions) have changed, the past was more forgiving.  There is more pressure now.  Many faculty think they couldn’t get into Stanford now!  We took chances.  We could fall on our faces. You hear “I can’t take philosophy, I’m afraid I’ll get a B.”  In high unit majors, it’s harder to pursue multiple interests. Now fewer students do double majors.


Q. Did you have support to step out of your path?
Debra:  The university was supportive, some individual faculty members backed up my math-to-philosophy move.  I used to assume everyone was the same, on the same path. It didn’t feel like a path, it might have been a dead-end.
Jennifer:  When you move from music to computer science, people don’t say, “You’ve thrown your career away!”


Q. You talked about throwing sand in the works, slowing down.  People are talking about mindfulness, but they are not interested in other people’s stories, here and in Silicon Valley.  How do we teach the value of each others’ stories?
Satz:  Humanities!  That’s what its for!  Humanities exposes one to others’ views and experiences.
Widom: I see this not only in Silicon Valley but around the world in my travels.


Because of the leadership positions Jennifer Widom and Debra Satz hold, and their own experiences of changing direction, these two Stanford women leaders are uniquely positioned to enable change in students’ opportunities to broaden their thinking and their studies through exploration. They are both committed to working together to encourage students to be less ballistic and more thoughtful about where they are going and what they will do.  Jennifer and Debra are tangible examples of the value of broader thinking, the utility of expanding the classroom to outside Stanford’s boundaries, and the benefits of collaboration in a world that needs innovative solutions.    

The 14th annual Stanford Women Winter Welcome was hosted by Cap and Gown and supported by Schools of Humanities & Sciences, Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, and Engineering; Student Affairs; Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies; The Clayman Institute for Gender Studies; and the Women’s Community Center.  

The 2019 Winter Welcome committee includes Beppie Cerf, Cheryl Cheng, Eleanor Frost (Active), Michelle Galloway, Jessica Mahler, Ellen Petrill (Chair), Smeeta Ramarathnam, Meg Richey (Active), and Sami Thompson (Active).Community Center.  The Winter Welcome team made this event possible:  Beppie Cerf, Cheryl Cheng, Eleanor Frost, Michelle Galloway, Jessica Mahler, Ellen Petrill, Smeeta Ramarathnam, Meg Richey, and Sami Thompson. 

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