Counterculture in Computer Science

Jean was born in Hunan Province, China. Her family had lived there for generations but in the late 1980’s, her father received an offer to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering and then was began working at Carnegie Mellon University. So the Yangs moved to Pittsburgh. Jean was five.

Growing up across the street from a university focused on engineering and technology, Jean was surrounded by computers for much of her childhood. And as her parents worked in the tech field as well, computers and programming are what Jean has always known best.
But as she grew older, Jean’s context expanded. She began attending an all-girls school where the arts and humanities were emphasized. Although she appreciated being exposed to different intelllectual avenues, technology still intrigued this adolescent female most. However, she recalls that “I noticed my teachers were kind of horrified if I said I wanted to do computer science. No one there was accepting of this idea that I might not want to do something in the humanities,” her mother included.
Although perhaps unaware of it at the time, Jean was already embarking on a path that challenged the conventional narrative of gender roles, espoused by the people who surrounded her.
Therefore, unsure of her career path and wanting to keep her options open, Jean attended Harvard University instead of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology for undergrad.  She toyed with the idea of majoring in Economics, and then of being pre-med, but these disciplines were uninspiring to her.
When Jean finally did enroll in computer science courses, she felt out of place, excluded, and discouraged from participating in class discussion and group work.
In short, Jean was stuck choosing between a career in which she was uninterested and one whose dominant culture discouraged participation from the atypical, women included.
Luckily, the conflicted student eventually encountered a female mentor and role model in the male-dominated field of computer science at Harvard: Dr. Margo Seltzer.

Professor Seltzer encouraged Jean to major in computer science. When she explained the ‘Impostor Syndrome’, she articulated a notion with which Jean had been wrestling, but unable to pinpoint, for some time:

“When you feel like you don’t belong, everyone is better than you are, and its only a certain amount of time until people figure it out?” That is the Impostor Syndrome. “A lot of women in male dominated fields tend to feel this way because they don’t have role models who are women.”

So, with the reassurance of her new advisor, Jean was able to pursue a degree in computer science with confidence, although she still had to contend with the dominant narrative of a white male as a programmer, and the disadvantages that accompanied being outside the mainstream of the profession. To give you an idea of the odds Jean faced (and still faces):

Plus guys in her major saying things like “women I find attractive I can’t bare to listen to when they speak” or, in other words, you’re either smart and not feminine or feminine and not smart.
So, how has Jean fared since undergrad, considering her profile diverges so acutely from the typical tech nerd?
            White:    check.
           Male:      check.
           Nerd:       duh.
Channeling her liberal arts education, Jean regularly contributes to various blogs.
(To the left is a photo of Jean in Peru and to the right is a professional drawing of her practicing yoga.)

Never-before heard from a programmer: “I try to limit my self to 40 hours of work a week or less. Too much burns you out.”

So it seems that she is doing pretty well, actually…

First of all, a PhD from MIT is a decent step toward world domination.

Further, Jean has also been published and has received several scholarly awards. You can see her full list of accomplishments here. Keep in mind, though, that she has not even finished her PhD yet, so we can expect much more from the young Ms. Yang in the years to come.

Despite her accomplishments, Jean is not quick to forget the obstacles she faced on her path to MIT. The lack of females in the programming community remains an important issue to her, and she has grappled with how best to tackle it throughout her academic career, ultimately reaching the conclusion that  “I should keep being the best scientist I can be in my field and lead that way.”

Indeed, perhaps more significant than her plentiful academic achievements, by pursuing a career she loves–and doing it well without sacrificing her values–Jean is assuming the position of female role model that is sorely absent in the programming field.