March 24, 2010 is Ada Lovelace Day, an occasion to celebrate women in science and technology, especially in Computer Science. Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer. She lived in the 19th century, even before computers were invented and built. The invitation for today’s celebration is to write a blog post about a woman in science and technology that we admire.
This blog post is about Barbara Di Eugenio, associate professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Barbara was my primary advisor during my graduate student career. I had the privilege of being supervised by Barbara twice, the first time for my Master’s thesis in 2002-2003, the second time during my PhD program between 2005 and 2009. I am happy to share the story of how great an advisor Barbara is, and how influential she was in my life.
I met Barbara Di Eugenio for the first time in fall 2001, during my Master’s degree program. She was the instructor of an Artificial Intelligence class I attended at that time. I liked that class very much, and Barbara’s teaching style made the material of the class interesting and easy to understand. The Department of Computer Science granted me a Teaching Assistantship for the following semester, spring 2002. Based on my positive experience with Barbara in class, I asked her to be assigned as a Teaching Assistant to one of her upcoming courses. She accepted, and I started working with her as a Teaching Assistant. A few months later, Barbara offered me to work on one of her research projects during the upcoming summer. I accepted her offer, and Barbara became my Master’s thesis advisor. At that time, I was also a student at Politecnico di Milano, Italy. In fact, my visit at UIC was part of an exchange program between Politecnico di Milano and UIC. After summer 2002, I went back to Italy to complete my degree requirements over there. While I was in Italy, I completed my Master’s thesis, based on the research I conducted with Barbara in 2002. Although we were more than 4500 miles apart, Barbara was extremely helpful during the difficult writing task. She patiently guided me through the process, helping me improve the document in terms of content, organization, writing style, and even grammar – she pointed out the many little linguistic details that I was struggling with, as I was a young and inexperienced Italian student, writing a large document in a foreign language with which I was not familiar yet. It is not an overstatement to say that Barbara read my Master’s thesis more times than I actually did.
After the completion of my Master’s degrees at UIC and Politecnico di Milano, I worked in the Computer Science industry in Italy for a while. In 2004, I reconsidered my career plans, and I decided that I wanted to go back to the United States for a PhD. It was a difficult choice overall, but the selection of the location was easy: I wanted to come back to Chicago and work with Barbara Di Eugenio again. The experience I had with her during my Master’s program was so good that I didn’t even consider applying somewhere else for my PhD. She also agreed to mentor me again, and I started my PhD program in spring 2005. At that time, I was confident that I was making the right choice, and now I can confirm that I did.
Working with Barbara during my PhD program was even more rewarding than I expected. During these years, I learned a lot, and I developed a true passion for the discipline. The following list includes just a few of the things for which I am grateful to Barbara.
1) Barbara effectively taught me how to write good papers in our discipline. A proof of that is the very high acceptance rate of the papers I have written in these years, all of them published in prestigious peer reviewed conferences and journals. Looking back at my writing history, I can clearly see a trend of improvement. On my first papers, Barbara intervened with substantial corrections and gave me a lot of directions on how to restructure them; as time passed, her interventions on my writing became progressively less necessary; eventually, I became able to write high quality scientific papers with minimal advice.
2) Barbara encouraged me to participate in the activities of our research communities. She allowed me to peer-review papers, and she always supported my travels to conferences so I could present my work to the larger community.
3) Barbara significantly helped me improve my presentation skills. Every time I had an important presentation coming up, she devoted at least an entire lab meeting so that I could give a dry run of my presentation, and receive abundant feedback from her and the other students in our lab.
4) Barbara has a great leadership and mentoring style. She was able to provide clear guidance, yet she always gave me a lot of independence in conducting my research. She was expecting good results, but she never imposed strict control over me. Our relationship was always based on mutual trust and respect. Of course, we had our fair share of disagreements, as both of us are very determined and assertive individuals. However, our discussions always resolved in a better understanding of the issues we were confronting, and our conversations were always constructive. The effectiveness of her leadership is witnessed by the steady progress of my dissertation project, and by my timely graduation in only four and a half years. Also, Barbara’s excellent leadership made it possible to conduct productive interdisciplinary research with our collaborators in the Department of Psychology. Barbara’s role was essential in coordinating the work with people of different backgrounds, helping resolve the inevitable conflicts arising from the difference in perspectives and standards of our discipline and theirs.
5) Barbara always supported me in my academic endeavors. I the past few years, I won a series of prestigious awards: an Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award from the Department of Computer Science; a Dean’s Scholar Award from the Graduate College; the 50 for the Future Award from the Illinois Technology Foundation; and finally a Computing Innovation Fellowship from the Computing Research Association and the National Science Foundation, which is funding my current position at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I am sure her reference letters and her help in fine-tuning the application documents played a significant role in obtaining these awards.
6) Barbara was always extremely available and answered my questions and requests very quickly. In addition to our weekly one-on-one meeting and our weekly research group meetings, I was constantly taking advantage of her incredible speed in answering emails. After writing her an message, I could confidently expect an answer within a few minutes or a few hours at the most, even during the night. Also during her sabbatical year in 2007-2008, Barbara was always available. Although she was out of the Country, we remained in constant email communication, and we continued working on our research without interruption.
7) In addition to her mentoring job with me and my other friends in the Natural Language Processing lab, Barbara is actively involved in service and outreach work with the larger community, and I really appreciate that. With the Women in Computer Science group, she helps promote the discipline of Computer Science outside the boundaries of the department. For example, she supported the organization of summer camps to engage children with Computer Science activities. Also, she is promoting environmentally friendly practices both within her lab and in the department at large.
I hope this blog post helped highlight the outstanding work of Barbara Di Eugenio as a teacher and advisor, work for which I am and always will be extremely grateful.