Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the
February 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In Engineering, New Standards for the Old Boys
Maria Klawe was recruited to make Princeton
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences — now ranked 18th in
the nation — a first-rate school. She took over as dean on January
1, and is the first woman to hold that position. An accomplished
with a deep resume in both industry and academia, it would be
to expect that at this stage of her career she would find being
as the "woman" dean tedious.
No, not really, she says. Dressed in black jeans and a casual
patterned blouse, with a multi-colored scarf tucked in at the neck,
Klawe, back from a one-hour run — at the low end of her usual
workout — betrays no hint of irritation at being labeled the new
"woman" dean of engineering.
"It’s my life," she says. "It’s always been `the first
woman,’ or `the only woman,’ or `one of only a few women.’ It doesn’t
bother me." She says she has spent "a huge amount of time"
over the past 15 years working on the problem of what it takes to
bring women into science and technology. Growing up interested in
"boy things," Klawe, who enjoys hiking, biking, and
as well as running, says this gives her an edge when she finds herself
the only woman in a group of 10 or 15 people. The women who stick
it out in engineering, she says, are those who are "comfortable
working in an area with a male — no, with a white male —
Changing that culture by making it a place where women can thrive
is part of her mission, but only part. There need to be more
minorities in engineering as well, she says. Furthermore, the
needs to reach out to men who are turned off by its image as a boring
pursuit. Beyond working on engineering’s image, Klawe aims to change
engineering itself, starting with the way the discipline is taught
There are six schools of engineering at Princeton, and each pretty
much operates alone. "Computer has some overlap," she says,
"and so do some of the others, but they don’t work
While the schools operate in vacuums, they also largely operate apart
from the rest of the university. "And worse," says Klawe,
"the rest of Princeton University doesn’t take advantage of
This is unacceptable, particularly now, says Klawe, because
is playing such a huge role in society." One of her goals is to
broaden the mix of people in the applied sciences so that they come
to mirror the demographics of society itself. Another is
the applied sciences with other disciplines, not only with the pure
sciences, but also with the humanities — with creative writing,
for example, and with ethics.
Klawe reports that Sasha, her 17-year-old daughter, says she is
out’" by taking on her new assignment. The move to Princeton takes
Klawe away from the University of British Columbia, where she served
as dean of science. "`Didn’t you always tell us Canada was better
than the United States?’" asked Sasha. "`Didn’t you always
tell us that public colleges were better than private colleges,
elite private colleges?’" Klawe says she answered her daughter’s
questions with a "yes" and a "yes." But she couldn’t
resist taking the job anyway.
You can bring in women faculty; you can increase female
enrollment; you can create ground breaking programs, but, says Klawe,
if you do it north of the border, "people in the states will say,
"`oh yes, but that was in Canada.’" If, however, significant
takes place at a Princeton, the world takes notice, and may well
"This is an incredible opportunity," says Klawe. "I love
British Columbia more than anything, but I’m coming here for the
Princeton is a relatively small school, she points out, putting
change more easily in reach than it would be at a bigger school.
five to ten years, we could do something really amazing," she
says. "Princeton is such a visible university. If we can attract
more women and under-represented minorities; if we can add programs;
we will have an importance beyond Princeton."
Klawe, who has been too busy to house hunt, is commuting back and
forth between Princeton and Vancouver, where Sasha is finishing up
high school, and where Nick Pippenger, her husband, is Canada Research
Chair in Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. In
the summer, Pippenger joins Princeton’s department of computer science
as a professor. Soon after, Sasha enrolls as a freshman at the
of New Hampshire. Janek, the couple’s son, is about to finish his
studies in computer science at the University of British Columbia.
Klawe was born in Ontario, the daughter of two professors. Her mother,
Kathleen, who lives in Vancouver, taught economics, and her father,
Janusz, who is deceased, taught cartography. The family moved to
when Klawe was four, and then moved back to Canada, to Alberta, when
she was twelve.
In addition to her enthusiasm for outdoor activities,
Klawe "always painted." An accomplished artist (see a
of her watercolors online at www.science.ubc.ca/main/klawe/maria),
she debated over whether to have a career as an artist or as a
and studied both math and art as an undergraduate at the University
of Alberta (Class of 1973). Her career decision: Retain art as a
avocation, but make a full-time career of science. Her rationale,
at least in part, is that it is possible to become a full-time artist
after achieving in science, but the reverse is not true.
With this in mind, Klawe earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the
of Alberta. The year was 1977, and she found few positions for math
professors. Looking around, she saw more opportunities in computer
science and began a second graduate degree. Soon after doing so, she
was called for interviews at a number of universities, and accepted
a position with the University of Toronto. She quickly decided that
teaching at a university was what she wanted to do.
Then Cupid intervened — she met Nick Peppinger. "We’re two
different people," says an outgoing Klawe. "I describe him
as a hermit/genius." While their personalities diverged, the two
agreed that having children was a priority. "I decided getting
married and having children would be enough of a disruption of his
life," says Klawe. Changing his work would have been too much
to ask. He was working at IBM, and so she signed on too, heading with
her new husband to California as part of a new project group. At IBM
she founded the Discrete Mathematics Group and served as manager of
the Department of Mathematics and Related Computer Science.
In every dual career household, she says, trade-offs are necessary.
She gave up teaching to accommodate her husband’s career, but agreed
to do so only temporarily. She planned to spend three to five years
at IBM before returning to teaching, but the work stretched to eight
years. Then, in 1988, the couple began to consider other
"We had offers from a number of companies and universities,"
says Klawe. "We chose B.C.," she says of the University of
British Columbia, where she signed on as head of the Department of
Computer Science. "There was no prestige, the salary was terrible,
and there were no resources," she says. The attraction was the
ability to make a difference. "We were idealistic," she says.
"We wanted the place where we would have the most impact."
During her years at the University of British Columbia,
Klawe rose to become Dean of Science. In recruiting her, the
promised to devote resources to the applied sciences, something it
had not done in the past. "We used to joke that the school was
ranked number 75 in North America," she says. During her tenure,
the school moved up to number 20. Klawe hired 11 people, and started
new programs. Among her projects was the design of interactive
technologies for use in teaching mathematics, reading, and science.
She led the design of several software products, including one,
Quest, which is a mathematical game geared toward students age 10
to 14, with particular attention to the interests of girls.
During her years at the University of British Columbia, Klawe also
held the NSERC-IBM Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, where
her responsibilities included increasing the participation of women
in information technology careers.
Beyond seeking an assignment where she could make a difference, Klawe
chose the University of British Columbia because her children were
young — three and six — and her parents lived in Vancouver.
She wanted the children to have the advantage of living near their
While many successful people credit their parents with setting them
on the road to career success, Klawe is especially grateful to her
parents for keeping her going on the road she chose. They were
encouraging of her efforts to combine work and children. "They
always said `you’re children are perfect; you’re doing everything
This was important, says Klawe, because she knew she wanted to
working after she had children. Her mother had taken 12 years off
from work to have four children. "In that time economics research
changed," says Klawe. "It became more mathematical. She never
really got back into research."
Mindful of the perils of dropping her own research, Klawe proclaimed
that she would continue working after starting a family. She received
no encouragement from co-workers.
"They all said `you’ll want to stay home! Just wait and see.’"
She did not know a single woman who was working and raising children,
and her confidence in her ability to do so was running a little low
when a felicitous meeting gave her the boost she needed.
"Shortly after my son was born, I went to a conference," she
recounts. "There was a woman there; she was a professor and her
husband was in computer science. She had children. She was happy;
her husband was happy; the children were happy." Seeing flesh
and blood evidence that the juggling act could maintain its rhythm
without child or career crashing to the floor, Klawe, a woman who
takes good mothering very seriously, was encouraged. Her parents’
cheerleading took her the rest of the way.
She has the following advice for young women planning on combining
a challenging career with children. First, choose a spouse who will
share child raising. "This is not absolutely essential, but it
helps a lot," she says. Second, choose a career that pays enough
to cover high-quality child care. Not only will the children be better
off, but mom will have the peace of mind necessary to concentrate
on her work. Third, choose a career with flexibility. That way, when
children perform in their first pre-school concerts, getting away
from work will not be a deception-laced nightmare.
Still, combining child care with running a university department,
conducting independent research, developing software, and attending
conferences involves trade offs. A good chunk of leisure, not to
most social life, disappears. But whole new interests appear. "I
told my kids, if there was anything they really loved, I would do
it with them," says Klawe. As a result, she has become an expert
at shopping for teen fashions, kayaking, and playing complex computer
games. She recently ran a half-marathon with her daughter and has
spent a number of Christmas breaks working through complex computer
games — including Final Fantasy VII — with her son. "He
led me through," she says. "That cut the playing time from
150 hours to 50 hours."
Another indulgence Klawe and her husband jettisoned while raising
children was vacations. Then, to celebrate her 50th birthday a
ago, the couple went snorkeling in Crete. "We hadn’t been on a
vacation in 20 years," she says.
She is now hooked on the concept of leisure combined with swimming
in warm water surrounded by waving coral and a rainbow of darting
fish. "That was July," she dates her birthday trip. "Then
in December, we went to Cancun. I really liked that." The
March she returned to Cancun with her youngest sister. Two months
later, she and her husband returned to Greece. Then, last Christmas,
she traveled to the Mayan Peninsula with her whole family for more
Adding vacationing to regular outdoor activity, time with family,
painting, music (she plays the guitar), research, technology
and university administration makes Klawe pretty much the definition
of a well-rounded person. She wants Princeton to do with its applied
science program what she is doing with her life. She wants it involved
in lots more than the lab. In embracing the entire university, and
in encouraging the university to take advantage of all it has to
the department will become a model for the integration of science
and everyday life.
Along the way, Klawe is convinced, Princeton’s department of
and applied sciences will rise from its current U.S. News and World
Report ranking of 18.
"Not all the criteria U.S. News uses is what you would care
Klawe admits. Still, the department is not first rate, she says, and
it should be.
Klawe quickly acknowledges that the department has done — and
is doing — important work. But the infrastructure and support
to move to the next level just are not in place. "Our resources
are not competitive," she says. "The buildings, the equipment,
the standard infrastructure to do major research and education are
She says Princeton needs to improve, but does not need to be number
one. "Nobody says Princeton University is competing with M.I.T.,
Berkeley, or Stanford," she says of schools that are far larger
than Princeton. M.I.T. holds the number one spot in the nation based
on criteria that include admission standards, faculty/student ratio,
and money spent on research. Berkeley and Stanford are tied for number
two. "I would like to be ranked number five," says Klawe.
Beyond a bump up in the national rankings, Klawe wants
Princeton to demonstrate just how well an engineering department can
be integrated within a university and how much it can contribute to
a university. "We really could be a leader," she says.
we’re so small, we could do that really well. We should be able to
do amazing things."
Klawe says she has the university’s support in making the dream a
"I didn’t ask for anything when I came here," says Klawe.
She didn’t extract a commitment for any dollar amount of research
money, or a promise for specific new buildings, or a guarantee of
a certain number of additional faculty spots.
While she threw no numbers on the table, Klawe did ask for a
commitment to taking the department to excellence. During her first
year as dean she will lead a strategic planning initiative. "We
will plan for additional faculty, students, infrastructure," she
says. "We will identify three or four key initiatives."
The plan will then be reviewed and approved by key university
What Klawe asked of Shirley Tilghman, president of the university
and a molecular biologist, is this: "When we come up with a plan,
you have to commit to it. You’ll support the plan."
She anticipates no difficulty with follow-through. "Engineering
is at the top of Shirley’s priorities," she says. "The bottom
line for her is that it has to be a Princeton engineering school.
It has to fit with the fabric of the university."
Weaving engineering into the intellectual life of the campus will
involve what Klawe likes to call "finding the overlap." In
developing a computer-based assistive device for individuals with
brain injury, and related loss of speech, she is working with
scientists, speech pathologists, computer scientists, and those who
will use the devices. The disciplines overlap, and so will the
This sort of work, says Klawe, could show women, and others turned
off by engineering’s boring image, that the discipline is about more
than writing code. It is also about improving lives.
"Look for the overlap," says Klawe. "Always look for the
overlap." She does this in a number of ways, many of them familiar
to working women everywhere. She combines work with friendship by
meeting up with her pals at conferences. She combines research with
parenting by studying how computer games work as she plays Final
VII with her son. She uses travel time for research. "An airplane
is the perfect place for math research," she says. Her friends,
who tend to be scientists and parents, all juggle this way.
Klawe, however, has taken "overlap" to whole new levels.
paint three or four times a week," she says. That in itself is
quite the feat for a person who is traveling across the continent
twice a week and who says her work entails putting in "60 hours
on a good week; 75 hours on a bad week." But the way she fits
in her painting takes "overlap" to a whole new level.
"On Friday I go to a board of trustees meeting at UCLA," she
says. "I will paint throughout the meeting." At all of the
long meetings she attends, Klawe arranges her paints, brushes, and
canvas in front of her, and proceeds to work. "When I first
people were curious," she says. "Some found it offensive."
She silenced the nay-sayers by pointing out that, occupied with paint
and brush, "I don’t take up as much air time." Left without
a second focus, she says she tends to do more than her share of
So, she convinced fellow attendees, practicing her avocation while
business is conducted is a good thing — for everyone.
But can she attend to the proceedings while creating art? Of course,
she replies, "I use two different channels."
If finding the overlap is what will make Princeton’s department of
engineering and applied sciences a top-ranked model of inclusiveness,
ingenuity, and synergy, who better to lead the way than a sell-out
from Canada who may just be the world’s most accomplished
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