Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day tribute to Jeanine Cook

When I think back to why I entered the field of computing, I think about the people who influenced me in subtle ways I can scarcely remember. I see now that my interest in STEM careers was influenced by my strong aptitude in math. In junior high, Mrs. Groff was legendary in her discipline, but I came out of her algebra I class with confidence and an interest to go further. My grandfather taught math in high school, and taught my high school math teacher, Mr. Quintana, who taught me. I had a little trouble with geometry; the concept of proofs and the unorthodox teaching approach of Mr. Romero threw me off balance. But I recovered my confidence in algebra II and trigonometry and was well-prepared to enter college.

My first computer class was entitled "Computer Math", taught by a woman in her sixties, Edna Barnes, at my predominantly Hispanic high school. She had set up a PDP-8 with a teletype keyboard and the operating system loaded from paper tape. Now that I reflect upon this, I wonder how in the world she convinced the principal and teachers to let her teach such a class. This was circa 1975, when computers lived in the realm of research and military institutions. I learned Basic programming, writing simple programs with loops and conditionals, and my fascination with computers was born. But where was this wonderful role model, and how could I possibly thank her?

Seeing my path to success in hindsight has naturally motivated me to create a path to success for others, with similar backgrounds and challenges, hence my participation as a founding member of Latinas in Computing. I signed up for the Ada Lovelace Day challenge, to publish a blog post about a woman in technology whom I admired. My choice is Dr. Jeanine Cook.

I first heard Jeanine's name mentioned when I visited my alma mater, New Mexico State University, as a campus manager for HP. I was working with the then department head of the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Dr. Steve Castillo. He excitedly decribed one of their new college faculty: "I just hired this incredible faculty member -- she'll blow your socks off. She might just go whizzing by any minute now." That was an apt description of Jeanine. She was given tenure in 2008, and is currently the director of the Advanced Computer Architecture Performance and Simulation Laboratory at NMSU. Jeanine teaches courses in computer architecture and has research interests in the areas of microarchitecture simulation techniques, performance modeling and analysis, workload characterization, and microarchitectural power optimizations. Students love her -- in her short time at NMSU, she has guided 15 MS students and one PhD student through the program. She has brought in millions of dollars of research funding to the department. Jeanine won the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in December 2008, and was presented the award by President George W. Bush in a White House ceremony. And she has done this all facing challenges that none of us would dream of.

Shortly after starting college
in 1982, Jeanine suffered a tragic accident -- she fell asleep while driving and suffered injuries that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Winning the PECASE award allows Jeanine to bring attention to people with disabilities, particularly young women. Jeanine is also an ethnic minority -- her father is Italian and her mother is Hispanic. She faces each day with seemingly boundless energy and optimism, and her love of her work is contagious. Students visit her regularly, and she works hard to balance her interest in the success of her students with her research and teaching demands. She is married to a fellow faculty member, Jon Cook, who teaches in the NMSU Computer Science Department. Both are now on sabbatical at Sandia National Laboratories.

So if you happen to see a woman in a wheelchair whizzing by, look beyond the chair. Look for the determination and talent that lie hidden within. Look for the accomplishments, not the potential roadblocks. In Jeanine's case, she motivates me to move past my challenges, past my own insecurities and doubts. She brightens my day with her sense of humor and complete lack of pretense. We laugh together and we work together for the better of young men and women everywhere.

(Photo courtesy of Jeanine Cook)