Princeton's Image-Smashing Math Whiz

Among the many goals for the multifaceted Maria Klawe: Use math to solve real-world problems and get more women interested

Maria Klawe is showing off her new office couch. She shopped for it herself -- a leather sofa whose thick cushions are designed to absorb stress. Only problem is, Klawe hardly ever sits on it because her hectic schedule doesn't allow for much relaxing.

For the past 17 months, Klawe has served both as president of the Association for Computing Machinery and as dean of Princeton University's School of Engineering & Applied Science. As if leading a world-renowned high-tech organization and running a prestigious engineering school weren't enough to pack a schedule, Klawe is also overseeing a handful of side projects, such as one by graduate students at Princeton and the University of British Columbia to develop handheld speech devices for people with aphasia -- the inability to understand words because of brain damage.

She has been so focused on her tech endeavors, that she's just now decorating her office after more than a year at Princeton. She's thinking about where to hang her latest painting -- a self-described O'Keeffe-esque rendering of magnolias. "You get so immersed in painting that at the end you can't stand it," she says, the thin laugh lines around her light blue eyes crinkling. She adds: "I love lots of things. I really love music. I really love painting. I used to really love poetry, though I haven't had time for that in a while."


  Those other passions nearly kept Klawe from the high-tech world. In the early 1970s, she dropped out of the undergraduate math program at the University of Alberta in Canada to do art. A political activist at the time, she couldn't justify dedicating her life to an academic discipline she thought bereft of social impact. "There was a movement among young people to try and make the world a better place," says Klawe. "I would talk to my friends, and they would ask 'How are you going to help the world with mathematics?' And I didn't know. So I left."

Klawe spent a year painting, making candles, and traveling through India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. Yet she soon started picking up mathematics texts for light reading. "I found I missed mathematics incredibly," she remembers. "I discovered that I really was passionate about it.... I love the fact that you get to think so hard in a virtual world.... It's this incredible mix of exploration, solving puzzles, and it's beautifully captivating."

So she re-enrolled at the University of Alberta, finished her math degree in 1973, and earned a PhD in mathematics in 1977. Professors often questioned why a woman of so many talents would study math. "There's an image of a mathematician in a room with chalk and a blackboard," said Klawe. "I didn't fit that image." It also didn't help Klawe that the mathematician most people envisioned was male.


  So she set out to change the stereotype. First, she rose quickly through the ranks of the tech community: In 1977, Klawe began teaching mathematics and computer science at Oakland University in Michigan and at the University of Toronto in Canada. After several years, she joined IBM's (IBM ) Almaden Research Center in California, one of eight laboratories worldwide that make up IBM's research and development department. There she founded and managed the Discrete Mathematics Group and served as manager of the Mathematics & Related Computer Science Dept.

After eight years at IBM, Klawe returned to academia in 1988 to head the computer science department of the University of British Columbia (UBC). She later became UBC's dean of science, which gave her a platform for encouraging women and minorities to pursue computer science, mathematics, and engineering.

By 1990, Klawe had become the first women to be elected to the board of the Computing Research Assn., and a year later she co-founded the Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research with MIT Aeronautics professor Nancy Leveson. The committee's goal is to increase the status and number of women in tech via mentoring workshops, computer science conferences, and networking. To aid in that goal, the committee maintains a database of women with PhDs who work in tech fields.

During the early 1990s, Klawe also founded the EGEMS (Electronic Games for Education in Math & Science) project -- an educational software company that designs video games that counter the cultural tendency for girls to shy away from math. And in 1995, she was elected as a fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery, an international scientific and educational organization that publishes technology research, helps computing professionals and students network, influences information-technology public policy, and sponsors eight prominent industry awards each year. Seven years later, she was elected the ACM's 29th president by the organization's 75,000-plus members. Shortly after, she took the job at Princeton.


  As Klawe assumed her new post in January, 2003, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman cited her ability to bring people from diverse disciplines together, as well as her focus on getting women interested in technology fields. A flurry of criticism soon followed. The Tory, a conservative student publication at the school, ran an article titled "The Modern Mommy University," which argued that Klawe and other top female officials had gotten their jobs thanks to gender-based affirmative action. The campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, found it implausible that so many women could have been hired "through a completely gender-blind process." Tilghman insists that all of her appointments have been based on merit.

Klawe, who is married with two grown children, is used to such talk. She's the fourth woman to hold the top position at the ACM, but she is more known than the others for trying to help women advance in technology. "Her biggest concern is the lack of women in the field of computing technology," says John White, the ACM's executive director and CEO. "She has been a huge champion of women."

Such efforts -- plus the generous salaries that tech jobs pay -- have slowly but steadily attracted more women to the field: They now get about 18% of all undergrad engineering degrees, up from from 9% in 1979, according to the National Science Board.

Klawe plans to serve on the ACM board after her presidential term expires this year, but she expects to focus primarily on Princeton. During the next five years, she wants to expand the school's engineering program to include more classes for students outside the science disciplines. She also wants to develop more seminars that encourage engineers and mathematics students to solve real-world problems as opposed to focusing on more theoretical math research.


  In pursuit of that goal, she started Vancouver-based Silicon Chalk three years ago. The privately held company sells software that enables teachers to beam classroom lectures and supplemental information to the PCs of students, who can respond directly to the professor's laptop. After persuading nine friends to kick in a total of $900,000 to start the company, Klawe gave Princeton 10% of Silicon Chalk's shares. Her hope is that the company will serve as a fund-raising tool for the university, fulfilling some of her obligation as dean to raise money for the engineering school.

This year, Klawe is also overseeing her aphasia project -- the development of handheld devices that will let patients use photos to explain what they can't articulate. It's an effort she started after a colleague at UBC was stricken with aphasia. That leaves one goal that Klawe has yet to tackle: Set aside a few minutes to enjoy the couch.

By Catherine Holahan

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