Women in Science

Sabrina Xie/Design Editor

March 8, 2019

A Tribute to the Women in Lab Coats, Behind the Microscopes and Computer Screens

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Throughout history, Cornell has been a beacon of scientific discovery among higher education institutions. Of Cornell’s alumni, many prominent female scientists have paved the way for women in STEM — among them Barbara McClintock ‘27, who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.

For International Women’s Day, take a look through a few influential female leaders in STEM, all of whom are currently professors at Cornell.
Carla Gomes

Professor Carla Gomes, Computer Science

Artificial intelligence, or the training of machines to think like humans, is a rapidly advancing field that initially piqued Professor Carla Gomes’ interest when she was a high school student in Portugal.

“I was very intrigued by artificial intelligence and the idea that computers could replicate intelligence,” Gomes told The Sun.

Since then, she has worked to use artificial intelligence to address key challenges associated with sustainable development.

“Computer science and A.I. have revolutionized Wall Street and businesses like Google and Facebook. Why shouldn’t we use A.I. to address key challenges that humanity faces today?” Gomes said.

Gomes won a highly sought-after 10 million dollar grant twice from the NSF and founded the Institute for Computational Sustainability at Cornell.

By founding the Institute of Computational Sustainability, Gomes seeks computational solutions to the most complex and pressing issues of our time — poverty, hunger, climate change and sustainability development.

“We have been working to develop computational approaches to tackle various problems that range from designing wildlife corridors for grizzly bears and wolverines to apps that help improve the understanding of vegetation for protecting migratory pastoralists in Africa,” Gomes said.

Gomes also collaborated with the Institute for Computational Sustainability on an application called Avichashing. The application uses a citizen science program from Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO) called eBirding. which gives the public the ability to submit bird observations into a large database.

Using machine learning algorithms to comb through this database, combined with data from remote sensing, Gomes and her collaborators were able to use A.I. to develop fine-grain bird species distribution models.

“It’s like PokemonGo but for birds. We send people to [birding] locations that are undersampled, and they can submit data about birds, ” Gomes said.

Gomes’ computational sustainability applications extend beyond the realm of ecological models. The same machine learning algorithms can be used to develop programs for advancing scientific discovery.

“The algorithms that we are using for the birds to predict how they are distributed are the same as the algorithms we use to identify elements of the periodic table in compounds,” Gomes said.  “We also have a collaboration with Caltech to discover new solar fuels”.

According to Gomes, the realm of artificial intelligence and its applications for improving sustainability practices and scientific discovery are boundless. Gomes, as a mentor to many undergraduate and graduate researchers, encourages everyone to get involved in computer science even if it means just taking a basic python class.

Gomes also is a large proponent of getting women involved in tech.

“When we automate systems, we are implicitly making the machines make decisions, and so it is good to have a variety of perspectives,” Gomes said. “Of course women have very interesting and different perspectives.”

As a prominent female scientist herself, Gomes has gone through the ranks of research and professorship and shares some wisdom to any aspiring STEM individual:

“Follow your passion and don’t give up when it gets hard, and it does get hard, but the rewards are tremendous,” Gomes said.

Susan Daniel

Professor Susan Daniel, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Professor Susan Daniel, chemical and biomolecular engineering, studies the biological mechanisms of cell membranes and organelles in order to understand how viruses, bacteria, and even cancer microvesicles invade healthy cells.

Her group is currently trying to build a synthetic Golgi apparatus on a digital microfluidics chip — a cell environment model — that would allow them to create biotherapeutic proteins, from scratch, to use for disease treatment research.

But Daniel’s work extends beyond the lab. On campus, Professor Daniel is a member of the faculty organization Women in Science and Engineering, or WISE.

WISE describes its mission as  “continuing to advocate for more women faculty, improving the situation for dual-career hires, reducing student bias against women and underrepresented faculty teachers, and encouraging more women to continue to advanced degrees and to pursue faculty careers.”

WISE was founded in 1997 to address concerns about the lack of women in engineering and computer science, and since then has helped Cornell achieve advances in female faculty hiring and retention.

“The WISE group has been an important part of helping me feel connected with other women across the college, and that has been very useful, considering that I don’t have many (women) to turn to in my department itself,” Daniel said.

Daniel also described WISE as a network of support and communication, effective for supporting women in academia and connecting them to upper administration.

Although there is still work to be done to achieve full representation across the science and engineering fields, Daniel is encouraged by Cornell’s positive progress.

“There are still times when men dominate the keynote lists at conferences, for example, but people are growing more aware and taking some action,” Daniel said. “It’s great to see and hear from a female pioneer in the field — it inspires me, as I am sure it inspires the younger women too.”

Eva Tardos

Professor Eva Tardos, Computer Science

Cornell Professor Eva Tardos, computer science, focuses her research on the effects of “selfish users” in networks. A “selfish user” optimizes resource usage for their own benefit like in packet routing, crowdsourcing and bitcoin mining. Selfish optimization by one user can have a negative effect on other users because it could limit access to resources and subsequently slow down processes in their respective areas of a network.

“Understanding the tradeoff between more complicated designs that can mediate effects of selfish users versus a simpler design […] is an area that I have been working on for 20 or so years, and I still find it fascinating,” Tardos said.

Tardos’ research also overlaps heavily with algorithmic game theory. Tardos notes that her research is extremely interdisciplinary and that she actively communicates with Cornell faculty such as Professor David Easley, economics, as well as economics graduate students.

“The graduate course that I last taught, CS 6840: Algorithmic Game Theory, had econ grad students in it and those are the people I often talk to, even after the course.”

Tardos not only collaborates with economists at Cornell, but also with larger scientific communities such as in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Economics and Computation, a forum to exchange ideas and converse over technical papers.

In addition to her research, Tardos teaches CS 4820: Analysis of Algorithms, a core class in Cornell’s computer science curriculum that focuses on the design and analysis of computer science algorithms.

“The best part of teaching undergraduate students is to teach students a principled way of thinking about algorithms,” Tardos said.

Tardos, a strong advocate for women in computing fields and an advisor for Women In Computing At Cornell, acknowledges that the number of women getting involved in computer science has not steadily risen like in many other STEM fields.

According to Tardos, the 1980’s were a high point for women in computing but after the dot com boom and bust, the number of women in computer science started to drop.

“Fortunately, in recent years that trend has reversed, and we are doing much better in attracting women to the field,” Tardos said.

Cornell is already ahead of the curve in achieving a 1:1 ratio of women to men in engineering disciplines, and Tardos remains very optimistic about the prospect of more women in computing fields entering academia.

Tardos hopes that this generation of women does not underestimate the excitement of being a computer scientist at a research university.