Lighting the path

By Anne Stuart

When she was an MIT undergraduate studying electrical engineering, Jeannette Wing ’78, SM ’79, PhD ’83 took a required computer science class and began thinking about changing her major. But before making the decision, she called her father, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, to ask one big question: Is computer science just a fad?

“I literally remember asking him that question,” Wing said, drawing chuckles from an audience of MIT students and faculty. Wing’s father assured her that computer science was here to stay. “So I switched,” said Wing, who is herself now the Avanessians Director of the Data Science Institute and professor of computer science at Columbia. “And I’ve never looked back.”

Patti Maes’ career path also began in college, when she couldn’t decide between two majors. Because of an economic downturn at the time, she also worried about the employment prospects in both fields. “I got interested in computer science as a way of [not] choosing between biology and architecture” — and ensuring that she could find a job after graduation, she said. Later, as a visiting professor and research scientist at MIT, Maes began working with robots and artificial intelligence (AI), but eventually moved to the MIT Media Lab, where she is now a professor of media arts and sciences. She said she’s more interesting in human intelligence, focusing on, for instance, how to help people improve their memories, become more creative, and listen better — “these soft skills that we really desperately need to do well in life.”

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