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Welcome to Webgrrls Wisdom, a blog to find commentaries about women's careers, business, technology, and the industry.

Posts written by Elena Strange

Congressional Visit Day 2011

written by Elena Strange
Elena Strange
Topics: Events,Leadership,Networking

Federal funding for basic scientific research is essential for all kinds of reasons, and its benefits extend far beyond scientists themselves.

Research and discovery are pretty good on their own, but funding supports more than just research. The science and technology work that goes on in grad schools and labs across the country helps to create jobs. Without the NSF, there would be no Google (responsible for 24,000 jobs). Without DARPA, there would be no Internet (responsible for countless jobs). These jobs are no slouches, either, with the average high-tech worker in Silicon Valley earning over $100,000 in 2008.

Federal funding has been important for me, personally, as well. I would never have gone to grad school without federal funding. After accumulating a pile of loans during my undergrad years, further education was an option only if it was paid for. The NSF and DARPA supported my grad school research and the bevy of high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley drew me to California when I graduated.

There. Was that convincing? I hope so, because that’s what I pitched to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s legislative aide when I was in Washington last week.

I was in D.C. as part of IEEE-USA, which partnered with other professional organizations to bring nearly 300 scientists and engineers to the nation’s capital for Science, Engineering, and Technology Congressional Visit Day.

CVD is a chance not only to advocate for science funding, but to do so with the support of IEEE, the world’s largest professional organization of engineers and technologists. Going into a meeting with the backing and support of 300,000 engineers (including 40,000 in my home state of California) gives you a lot more confidence—and gets more attention from congressional staffers—than doing it alone.

As it happened, we took these meetings the day before the government almost shut down. As strongly as I feel about science issues, they seemed a little less important that day, and I even felt a little sheepish advocating for money. The shutdown possibility loomed larged and seemed more important than the NSF and DoD research budgets.

Would the staffers we talked to even be at work the next week? Would they be too busy and distracted to even talk to us? Turns out, they were more focused than I could ever be in their shoes, and they gave us their full attention in every meeting. Now that is some professionalism. I was in awe.

Have you ever visited your representatives’ offices in Washington? What would you talk about if you had the chance?

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Museums as Communicators

written by Elena Strange
Elena Strange
Topics: Mentors & Motivators,Webgrrls' Finds

Over hundreds of years, scientists have adopted many different strategies to communicate science to the public. Rigorous scientific papers, letters to the editor, web sites and blogs all have taken part in converying the role and import of science. Even television plays an important role—nothing else could have drawn my 8-year-old self to mathematics like PBS’s Square One.

We need and use all these channels to communicate research, discovery, and scientific milestones. No single message can reach all audiences. Some people are drawn in by big and powerful stories, others are touched by the personal and relatable.

That’s why museums play such an important role in communicating science to the public. In one space, different exhibits can hit everyone, at some point, right between the eyes.

When I was a kid, I loved the birth- and death-rate counter at the Boston Museum of Science. It flashes red every time someone on earth dies and blue every time someone is born—empirically, of course. It’s a tiny display, hidden near the exits. But when I was little, I always insisted on visiting it. My sister, on the other hand, liked the T-Rex exhibit and dragged the family to the big, intimidating skeleton. To each her own.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which I visited recently when I found myself with a free afternoon in D.C., runs the gamut from big and powerful to the small and personal. They have on display a reconstructed 45-foot, 28,000-pound V2 missile and a pre-Apollo 15 Lunar Roving Vehicle test unit. My sister would have loved those.

Me, I was struck by the smaller, more personal exhibits. I imagined what it would be like to be onboard an aircraft carrier during World War II and learned a bit about legendary German fighter pilot the Red Baron. I was also riveted by a list of requirements to be a stewardess in the 1950s. (Of the eight requirements, I meet only two. Totally moot and pointless, but I couldn’t help feeling a little discouraged.)

As I wandered around the museum—free of charge, by the way—I saw kids and adults ooh and ahh over the missile-type exhibits and go in for closer looks at the Red Baron. Many audiences, one channel.

Have you ever visited the Smithsonian? Do you think museums are a good way to communicate science to the public?

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Technology and the Japan Disaster

written by Elena Strange
Elena Strange
Topics: Events,Technology

As a devoted fan of computers, computer science, robots, and basically everything about technology, I pretty much believe science can do anything. We may not have flying cars or television beamed right into your head—yet—but technology and innovation can eventually, somehow, solve everything.

Technology failed Japan this week, however. Its state-of-the art technology and infrastructure, though undoubtedly life-saving, wasn’t enough to prevent the death toll from climbing to an expected 10,000 people.

Japan has some of the most sophisticated earthquake and tsunami warning systems—and some of the strictest building codes—in the world. Spurred to action after the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed over 6,000 people, the Japanese government invested billions of dollars in technology and infrastructure to protect against future—and assured, in Japan—quakes.

Japan’s warning systems and technologies worked as intended and were effective during this disaster, but technology just wasn’t enough. The investments they made have been fairly comprehensive, though, including the following disaster responses:

  • Earthquake warnings. Earthquakes don’t give a lot of warning, of course. But the earthquake warning system in Japan—which notifies officials and the public via phone messaging as well as traditional media—can give a few seconds’ notice before a quake hits. Not much, but enough to enable transit workers to shut down trains and some people to take cover.
  • Tsunami warnings. The billion-dollar tsunami warning system uses a network of over a thousand GPS-based sensors and can give people several minutes to evacuate before waves start hitting.
  • Infrastructure. Japan’s strict building codes, long among the most stringent in the world, meant that the buildings sway instead of crumble during the quake.  Seawalls, derided as eyesores by some, protect the coast from Tsunami waves.
  • The Internet. It’s still up and running in Japan. Access to information (and to loved ones) is paramount during a disaster, and Japan’s undersea cables have remained mostly intact so far, allowing much-needed communication and response.

Technology can do a lot for us. It saved lives in Japan, and in the future it will surely save more. But it’s just not enough. Someday, advanced technologies will be more effective in disasters like this one, but in the meantime all we can do is try to help.

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Jeopardy!, Watson, and the Promise of Artificial Intelligence

written by Elena Strange
Elena Strange
Topics: Events,Technology

Boy, that Watson was something else, wasn’t he?

I myself watch Jeopardy! regularly and even DVR it, so I’m sure you can understand my geeky salivating excitement at the computing experiment.  Even if you don’t usually watch Jeopardy!, I hope you had a chance to check out the anthropomorphized supercomputer plowing his way through Alex Trebek’s answers and questions.

Reaction to Watson’s win has been tinged with a bit of snickering and scoffing. That stupid computer thought Toronto was a U.S. city! His computer-quick reaction time gave him an unfair advantage! And so what if computers are good at trivia; they still can’t do anything good.

Despite the skepticism, Watson is a truly amazing feat of natural language processing and artificial intelligence.  The reason he triggers such reactions is in part, I believe, because of the accessibility of Artificial Intelligence.

Way back in 1956, the proposal that launched the field of AI (via a research summer at my alma mater Dartmouth College) had lofty goals even by today’s standards. The 10 scientists conjectured that “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.” 55 years later, that reality still sounds just as plausible and just as futuristic.

Unlike other branches with computer science, the promise of AI is easy for us to imagine. Fifty years ago, few people dreamed of an Internet that would connect you with all the information in the world, mobile phones that fit in your pocket and do absolutely everything, or video games you control with your body.

But a machine that understands what you’re saying, cleans up after you, plays ping-pong? That’s easy to dream of, and hard to live up to. And Watson is one step closer.

Did you watch Watson on Jeopardy!? What do you think of the advances in AI that led to Watson’s development?

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Surprising Women Scientists

written by Elena Strange
Elena Strange
Topics: Technology

As a computer scientist, the list of historical women I admire is fairly short and predictable: pioneer Grace Hopper is at the top, followed by Turing-award winner Frances Allen and “enchantress of numbers” Ada Lovelace. Inspiration sometimes comes from unusual places, however, and I would never have guessed that a female scientist and inventor was also a 1940s Hollywood glamour girl. Really.

Hedy Lamarr, known primarily for being beautiful and seductive, was also a co-inventor of spread-spectrum broadcasting, a technology that laid the groundwork for secure broadcast communications and even modern-day Wi-Fi. Spread-spectrum techniques use wide-band signals that are hard to detect, jam, or intercept, making them useful in military and secure applications. It’s pretty amazing Lamarr patented the underlying concept for it way back in 1942.

I’ve never believed that any of us must fit a particular mold, and I love that this scientist comes in a unique package. Lamarr starred in over 35 films in an acting career that spanned 60 years, and she also had a sort-of “Hollywood” personal life that included 6 marriages and 3 children. She also holds a patent and was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in 1997.

Hedy Lamarr is an unusual source of inspiration but newly and firmly on my list of women scientists I admire. What historical and scientific figures have you been surprised by?

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