Home > PUM Women's History Salutes: Mary Shaw, CMU Professor of Computer Science, presented with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation

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PUM Women's History Salutes: Mary Shaw, the Alan J. Perlis Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University

PittsburghUrbanMedia.com-Celebrate Women’s History Month, March 2015

National Women's History Month's roots go back to March 8, 1857, when women from New York City factories staged a protest over working conditions. International Women's Day was first observed in 1909, but it wasn't until 1981 that Congress established National Women's History Week to be commemorated the second week of March. In 1987, Congress expanded the week to a month. Every year since, Congress has passed a resolution for Women's History Month, and the President has issued a proclamation.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, the leaders featured during the month of March all demonstrate that they are significantly shaping the world – in business, government, academia, the non-profit sector and more.  They are advancing their influence exponentially by shaping and creating a new generation of leaders who are poised to help lead our world forward. We hope their stories will serve as an inspiration to encourage others to be motivated and inspired to achieve their goals and dreams.  


Mary Shaw, the Alan J. Perlis University Professor of Computer Science in Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Software Research, received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony held on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. The medal is the nation's highest honor for achievement in the field of technology, innovation and invention. 

Remarks by the President at National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation Award Ceremony. "Mary Shaw stumbled into computer science in high school, and as a college student she walked into a busy engineering building in search of the computer lab.  And she says, “When I first showed up, they handed me a user manual and told me to go read it, and, silly me, I thought it was an invitation, so I did read it, and I came back.”  (Laughter.)   

She applied to Carnegie Mellon the same year they formed a graduate degree program in computer science, and she’s been there ever since, pioneering new ways to educate students in computer science, and converting the emerging field into a curriculum, and also textbooks used all across the nation."













PUM: Tell us more about being recognized by President Obama and meeting him. What was that experience like for you?

Shaw: It was an incredible experience. The award was a complete surprise -- I had no idea I was even being considered.   The event involved both a formal award ceremony in the East Room of the White House and a black-tie gala at a downtown Washington hotel.  In person, President Obama has enormous presence, and it was a special thrill to be mentioned in his introductory speech. It was a tremendous honor to meet him and the other laureates.

PUM:  You are being honored for your work in the field of technology, innovation and invention, what are you most proud of in terms of your accomplishments in this field?

Shaw: My work is in software design and software engineering.  The citation for the award singled out my innovative contributions in Computer Science curriculum design. This is one facet of a wide ranging research and education program.  On the technical side, my colleague David Garlan and I are regarded as the leaders of the sub-discipline of software architecture.  In this field, we study the fundamental large-scale structure and performance of software systems, with emphasis on the principles that govern the design of these systems.  

PUM: The medal is awarded annually to individuals, teams, companies or divisions of companies for their outstanding contributions to America's economic, environmental and social well-being. It recognizes those who have made lasting contributions to America's competitiveness, standard of living, and quality of life through technological innovation, and those who have made substantial contributions to strengthening the nation's technological workforce. From your vantage point, where do you see America in terms of our sustainability in providing jobs in the technological fields?

Shaw: American industry has an unparalleled capacity for innovation. I see the challenge not in developing jobs as in preparing enough students with skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called STEM fields) to satisfy the needs. This will require a shift in popular opinion from "math is hard" and "girls don't do engineering" to "Wow, math is orderly and beautiful" and "technology lets me make things I want".  The "maker movement" offers opportunities here: It offers easy entry to tools like 3D printing that let you go from idea to finished object quickly, without a huge amount of effort to get started; further, I've found the local maker community, for example at TechShop, fully congenial to women. 

PUM: Do you see more women pursuing careers in technology and innovation? What needs to be done to encourage more women to pursue these careers?

Shaw: The School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon has a long and successful history of encouraging women to pursue computer science.  The School nurtures an environment that is balanced in the three critical domains of gender, mix of students and interests, and professional experiences available to all students.  In a balanced environment like this, a wide diversity of interests and personality types are welcome, and gender differences tend to dissolve.

PUM: Being one of the few women working in this role, how were you able to stay the course in an industry dominated by men?  
PUM:  What is your advice and recommendations to women as they break through the glass ceilings in their careers? How were you able to persevere?

Shaw: I had the great good fortune to spend my professional career in a department and school in which the quality of technical contributions matters vastly more than gender.  One of our founders advised me, "concentrate on doing great science, and other things will work out".  As a result, I've been largely insulated from the male domination of the industry at large.  Having a safe haven at home allows me to gather my energy to deal with less supportive environments.  One important thing to remember is that energy spent doubting myself would be better spent doing great science.  That is, while it's appropriate to invest energy in pushing back on gender biases, it's important not to waste energy worrying about whether they mean you personally are inadequate.

PUM: Celebrating Women's History Month what does that mean for you in terms of what you have been able to accomplish in your career?
PUM: What are you most proud of as a Women who inspires other women every day? 

Shaw: This provides an opportunity to recognize and celebrate women whose success can encourage young women to dream of their own success.  This is especially important in technology fields, where examples are not so common.

PUM:  Balancing career and home life, what has worked for you on your path to success?

Shaw: I have consistently taken time for activities with my husband, outside my professional commitments.  In our case, it's whitewater canoeing, bicycling, and cross-country skiing.  We are deeply engaged in these activities -- we have co-authored regional guidebooks, and we have set up funds to improve access to these activities ( http://they-working.org and http://waterlandlife.org/371/canoe-access-development-fund ) 

PUM: How are you enjoy living in Pittsburgh?

Shaw: I've lived here since 1965.  Since you asked, though, I like the combination of having enough city amenities with a city small enough that it's easy to get out of the city into western Pennsylvania for bicycling and canoeing.  It has been impressive to watch the successful transition from an industrial city to a forward-looking high-tech center, while still largely preserving the character of the neighborhoods.




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