Wellesley’s Computer Science Program Turns 40 | Spotlight
On October 29, Wellesley celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Computer Science Department with an event in the Science Complex that included panels with professors and alums, expositions of students’ creative work, and virtual greetings from alums around the world.
With support from students and faculty, Eni Mustafaraj, associate professor of computer science, led the planning for the anniversary celebration, which reflected on the department’s history and considered the future of computing research and education at Wellesley and beyond.
Orit Shaer, professor of computer science and department chair, welcomed students, current and emeriti faculty, and alums to the event. She emphasized the importance of looking at the technical aspects and societal challenges that will impact the future of computer science and said the department’s goal is to “inspire students and to provide them with both the technical and ethical foundations to think critically about technology, to apply creativity and method when tackling complex problems, and to become lifelong learners in a world where technology is constantly evolving.” She also outlined the department’s aspirations for the future: commitment to broadening participation and inclusive excellence, excellent education for future leaders, and new knowledge and discovery.
During a panel discussion on the past and present of computer science, moderator Jessica Linker ’03 facilitated conversations with Takis Metaxas, professor of computer science; Franklyn Turbak, associate professor of computer science; and Jean Herbst, senior instructor in computer science laboratory. The panelists cited early efforts to develop computer science labs and workstations on campus, which have evolved into new additions to the Science Complex, such as computer labs and the Playable Media Lab. They also spoke about how rewarding it is to work with students who have strong work ethics and innovative ideas. Turbak noted that in the past, students often became interested in computing after taking courses in the department, but now many come to Wellesley specifically to study computer science.
Professors also discussed the importance of expanding and supporting inclusivity and diversity at Wellesley. Sohie Lee, senior instructor in computer science laboratory, spotlighted a few diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) projects she and her students are working on. For example, TransparenCS, a resource bank created by Alana Mackey ’24 and Yuling Sun ’24, aims to help students from underrepresented groups and students with no prior computer science experience navigate computing spaces. “If You Can See It, You Can Be It,” a project led by Audrea Huang ’22 and Julie Lely ’23, involves displaying posters that highlight the accomplishments of alums of color who are working in the technology fields to provide role models for current computer science students. Smaranda Sandu ’14, instructor in computer science laboratory, started the podcast “Mind the Gap” to connect minority students studying computer science with alums in the field and build a community that empowers underrepresented groups in technology.
In his remarks on what he looks forward to implementing in the department, Peter Mawhorter, instructor in computer science laboratory, noted that computer science programs at liberal arts institutions like Wellesley allow students to explore the synergies between courses and departments. As a way to make interdisciplinary connections, he suggested Wellesley could offer cross-department computer sciences courses. Jordan Tynes, Hess Fellow and lecturer in computer science, said he hopes students will have more freedom to blend their cross-disciplinary interests.
During the panel “Of Humans and Robots,” Holly Yanco ’91, Audrey St. John ’02, Vasu Raman ’07, and Kathryn Neugent ’10 spoke about their experience taking computer science courses at Wellesley and their research. Audrey St. John ’02, a computer science and mathematics double major, is now a professor of computer science at Mount Holyoke. She said she initially planned to pursue math and physics, but after she took a website design course, she kept taking courses in the computer science department. “Looking back on it, certainly being at Wellesley was a huge factor for me deciding to pursue computer science,” she said.
Computer science and mathematics double major Raman is a roboticist at Zipline, where she works on behavior planning for drones that deliver medical supplies around the world. At Wellesley, she was motivated by solving complex theoretical problems, and while she enjoys that aspect of computing, as a researcher and engineer she also recognizes the practical purposes of technology. “I still love a good puzzle, but I think I’ve realized that the application of what I’m working on really matters,” she said. “Now, I want to be working on something that’s having a positive impact on people’s lives.”
The department aspires to empower students to understand the technology around them, apply their computing skills to their academic interests, and collaborate with people in the computing and technology sectors. “It’s a web of opportunities,” said Carolyn Anderson, assistant professor of computer science. “There are Wellesley alums who didn’t major in computer science who are now computer science professors. Wellesley alums from every major ended up contributing to computing and tech after they left, whether they took some computer science classes while they were here, or found their way into the field after.”