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A HEART OF GOLD FOR WOMEN'S FUTURE IN COMPUTER SCIENCE
April 12, 2015 * by Ly Harriet Bui

T The name Audrey Lee St. John is hard to miss in conversation for any student who has taken computer science at Mount Holyoke College. While her stature is small, her reputation is beyond reproach. She was honored with the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Awards for Teaching and Research on March 3, 2015.

St. John has been dedicated to the computer science field with a focus in rigidity theory that informs the flexibility of rigid objects established by hinges and linkages. Her research revolves around problems regarding robotics, biology and computer aid design. Surprisingly, she did not intend to take computer science during her undergraduate studies at Wellesley College as she thought it was “nerdy.” She originally wanted to major in math and physics -- however, as the Internet started to emerge in the market, she took a non-major class in order to learn how to build a website. The class introduced her to the power of code in visual graphic manipulation which piqued her interest in computer science.

Attending a women’s college was a catalyst for her change in major from physics to computer science, which marked a milestone in her career path. “If the class was full with male students who I could not identify with, I would not have stayed in the class, ” she said about her web development course. Little did she know back then that she was to take on a mission to promote gender equality within such a male-dominated field as computer science.

St. John shared that there were times when she had experienced gender bias as she developed her studies. When she was a graduate student at a poster section where students showcased their research findings, despite her professor’s statement that the poster was her work, a group of graduate students refused to talk to her as they did not believe that the poster was done by a woman.

In spite of this pressure, she continued to succeed. Being a computer science teaching assistant in college fed St. John’s desire to help people solve problems. The experience made her realize that she wanted to teach. In graduate school, she also accepted a full teaching position at Smith College. Having two chances to take full responsibility of the classroom paved her way to a career in teaching. After graduating from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she came to Mount Holyoke College to mentor women who share a passion for computer science. “Women’s colleges allow students to explore the subject without that kind of environmental pressure that might be subconsciously saying that this isn’t the place for you,” said St. John.

One reason why St. John has achieved high reputation among her students at Mount Holyoke is that she puts the students foremost in her teaching. Considering students’ various backgrounds, she comes up with the best approaches to different concepts. She tries to apply varieties of analogy depending on the student’s major, whether it is chemistry, art history or English. Kayla Nguyen, a first-year student from Vietnam, said that St. John taught all the materials in detail and knew how to simplify complicated concepts, which made computer science especially appealing for beginners.

What St. John enjoys most about teaching in college is mentoring students who originally are not interested in computer science. By doing this, she hopes to encourage diversity within the computer science field. John Karlen, a lab instructor was St. John’s colleague in Computer Science 101 class last fall and described St. John as a hardworking individual. “She is really good at relating to her students. She knows how to make computer science fun and tell people to come on in,” said Karlen.

One interactive project St. John conducted research on is IHeart, an application that allows students to ask questions to the computer when they walk by it. The project enables students who have a minimal programming background to experience creativity and collaboration in computer science. She hopes that similar projects will be able to reach out to a larger audience beyond the Mount Holyoke campus.

St. John wants to fight the stereotypical notions of computer science as an isolating activity. She believes that computer science is in reality collaborative and fun. She expresses that there is a huge means for artists, psychologists, biologists and the like to be involved in computer science projects. For example, examining which traits make robots seem friendly and which make them unapproachable is essential in human robot interaction. Therefore, St. John thinks drawing more psychology majors to computer science programs is one of the best solutions.

Looking at her busy schedule and overwhelming success, It is hard to believe that St. John also has a life outside of the classroom. St. John beamed when she talked about how much she enjoys rock climbing with her husband and crafting. To her, these activities enable her strong focus, which leads to her great dedication towards computer science and teaching. She loves sharing her passion with her husband, who also works in the field. He co-founded a company to produce video games aimed at women. Like St. John, her husband also wishes that there could be more women in the tech sphere. “It is hard for him to find women engineers,” St. John said.