These women fell in love with pursuits in the male-dominated technology industry, but that didn't stop them. They are natural-born creators, innovators, and—yes, because of their gender—pioneers. And they've helped pave the way for a generation of others.
Sara del Valle
Computational Epidemiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory
A program she learned to get there: C, C++, Math Lab, Mathematica
There are two pieces to my job. First, we use mathematical equations to describe how diseases spread. Then we use computer science to create simulations like what you see in computer and video games. We can ask, "What happens if there's a virus in an airport? Or in a school?" then simulate how the virus spreads. Usually we rely on code from existing packages, but sometimes we write our own from scratch.
Even though I'm a mathematician, I lead a team of computer scientists, software developers, and statisticians. The software developers build the simulations and add new capabilities to the code. Once it's built, I run the code and analyze the results. It's a continuous back and forth. But the math itself is important, too: There are mathematical models that helped the nurse or physician come up with the vaccine you get or to determine when to administer shots. Mathematicians impact our daily life.
Director of Photography at Pixar
A program she learned to get there: Maya
Toy Story didn't come out until my senior year of college, but as a junior, one day my computer graphics professor showed a Pixar short film. I knew then that was exactly what I wanted to do. In a regular live-action movie the director of photography does camera and lighting. In animation, I'm in charge of adding the lighting to the three-dimensional worlds we build movies in. It's the last creative step: The world is built, the characters are animated, and I add lights. I can make a scene look indoors or outdoors, overcast or sunny, fluorescent or candlelit.
One important program we use at Pixar is called Maya. It helps our technical artists build models and do special effects and hair and cloth. It's great as a learning device because you can get a free student version that has essentially all the same tools we use as professionals. It's a highly capable piece of software.
Space Archeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham
A program she learned to get there: ER Mapper, ESRI, ENVI
Space archaeologists don't actually work in space. We use images from satellites four hundred miles above Earth to look for changes in vegetation and soil. We classify pixels from the satellite images into groups—such as plants, soil, and buildings. The naked eye can identify things like compounds and pyramids, so we know where to send teams of archaeologists. It saves a lot of time and money over traditional digging.
Eventually, I wanted to create a platform where anyone could discover ancient sites with satellite images. I created GlobalXplorer, which turns space archaeology into a game. Citizen explorers view a tile of land, then work to identify classifications. It connects people to places that are disappearing around the world.
Head of Machine Intelligence for Google Photos
A program she learned to get there: C++, Java
To explain what I do in an example: We noticed that a lot of people accidentally take sideways photos, so we took a whole bunch of photos that we knew were right-side-up, and rotated them sideways or upside down. Then we showed millions of those examples to a machine-learning algorithm. Because we'd labeled all the data, the algorithm learned how to recognize a photo that was uploaded the wrong way and tell the user how to fix it. So my job, really, is knowing what algorithms are out there, and how to use them to solve problems.
There's a diagram at the Computer History Museum near Google that shows the family tree of programming languages. There are so many, but if I were learning computer science today, the language that would be first on my list besides C++ and Java would be Swift. It's a new language that is very elegant. I think it will be the language of the future. You're gonna see it all over the place.
Director of Interior Design for Cadillac at General Motors
A program she learned to get there: Alias, Z-Red
I've been at General Motors for twenty-three years and my art background gave me a solid foundation for using tools as they evolved. That foundation still matters, regardless of what technologies you use: Every car starts with a sketch on paper. From there a "sculptor" evolves it into math, and then into 3D. Designers coming out of school today can start with a sketch and render it in programs such as Alias, which can create a quick model, and Z-RED, which can apply textures, grains, and colors.
We're also excited lately about virtual reality. It allows us to sit inside the environment of a car that doesn't exist yet. We can sit in the front seats, the rear seats. We can look up and see the headliner or out the windows to the road. We can simulate driving to assess visibility. If you're interested in VR, in sketching things, in gaming or animation, there's a place for you here.
Associate Professor of Songwriting at Berklee College of Music
A program she learned to get there: ProTools, Ableton, Logic
Technology has changed everything about the music industry. Until ten or fifteen years ago, the technology that was required to record and distribute music was expensive, and only a few select people had it. These days, everybody can be a producer. I was a musician for years, but I often felt like I didn't have the resources to make the music I wanted to make. I realized the barrier was that I didn't have control over the technology. So I decided that I was going to learn.
The main tools I teach are ProTools, Ableton, and Logic, and they're all very specific for the type of music you want to create. If you're a singer-songwriter, I recommend Logic because it sort of holds your hand through the process and will make you sound good without too much effort. For people who want to make electronic music, I recommend Ableton. It's more an instrument than a piece of software. And then if somebody wants to work in a studio, I suggest ProTools, because that's what they use in professional environments.
The Emmy-Award-Winning Sound Designer for Game of Thrones
A program she learned to get there: ProTools, Electrical Engineering
My dad was an electrical engineer who specialized in radio frequency and microwaves, so I have always been a techno nerd. I've always built and wired my own studios, and I started working with ProTools before it was ProTools. There are lots of ways you can get it free. I always encourage people to start with an online tutorial.
Sound is fully immersive, but most people don't notice it. If you are watching a movie and a car rolls by, you'll hear the hum of the engine, the rolling of the wheels, and the grit on the ground and that's about it. Now imagine another similar car rolling by, but this one has a pebble in the wheel well. Even if you're not paying attention to the sound of it, you'll wonder to yourself for a split second, how'd that get in there? You can make all sorts of sonic analogies that support a story twist that way.
Why We Should Be Excited About the Future
An inspiring afternoon spent watching the girls of Girls Who Code.
The Poly Prep Country Day School chapter of Girls Who Code meets on Wednesdays in Brooklyn in New York. As the sound of the bell fills a technology lab in the middle of campus, girls bob in in twos and threes. The lab looks much like a modernized woodshop, with blue rubber flooring, wheeled work tables, metal rolling stools, and a tool wall.
There are eleven girls today. Most are high school underclassmen, though the youngest is a seventh grader and the oldest is a senior. Some have been part of GWC all year; others just began last week, at the beginning of the spring semester. The girls gather around tables and pull out their laptops, many of them decorated with stickers.
Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit with forty thousand participants throughout the United States. Each chapter follows an official curriculum: For example, each meeting begins with a lesson about a famous female scientist. This week, computer science teacher Jean Belford, the club's advisor, shows a trailer for Hidden Figures, the Oscar-nominated movie about black women who helped NASA launch John Glenn into orbit but got little credit for their work.
"Are women in science still overlooked today?" she asks.
"That's why this club exists," says Rema Hort, a sophomore.
For their yearlong project—each GWC club picks one at the beginning of the academic year and works on it together—the Poly Prep girls are building both a video game and a website for another club Poly Prep students are involved in called Focus. They are most excited about the game: They want it to be like Pac-Man—only instead of running from ghosts in a maze, the protagonist will chase and catch counselors. "That's going to be hard," Belford says. "But you can do it."
Kristen Palmer (pictured above, center), a fifteen-year-old sophomore who's done more hackathons than she can remember, works on the game with freshmen Jessie Rose and Michelle Kwan. They use Scratch, a visual-programming language designed for students. As they organize purple, blue, and orange blocks of code in a column, Scratch, the orange mascot for the programming language (and a stand-in protagonist), begins to move over a photo of their school. Success!
Throughout the two-hour session, girls call out to Sam Steinberg, a seventeen-year-old senior, for guidance. Steinberg enthusiastically advocated for the club at Poly Prep last year. She was the only girl in computer science class her freshman year, and boys would pick on her for answering questions correctly. She didn't like that, so she helped create a place where she (and other girls) wouldn't have to deal with it.
Steinberg hops up to help seventh-grader Jasmine Kaur, who's spent the two-hour session coding an online application form for the Focus club. Steinberg scans over the lines, then launches a new window to test the code out.
"I'm so nervous, I hope it works," Steinberg says as they stare at the screen.
"Don't get your hopes up," Kaur says, laughing. A minute later, the application form is live. It works perfectly.
This story appears in the May 2017 Seniorhelpline.