By Mattie Courtright, ASE Program Coordinator
Saturday Academy’s Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering (ASE) Program owes most of its success to three key ingredients: quality students, quality science, and quality mentors. Long-time ASE mentor Dr. Margaret Burnett is a master at bringing those three elements together into some of the best experiences ASE interns could have. Her inquisitive mind, gift at collaboration, and effervescent optimism make Margaret an invaluable mentor for the ASE program.
Margaret Burnett started her career in computer science’s infancy. In high school she was inspired to pursue computer science after talking with her neighbor who had just graduated with a degree in math and started working at IBM. One problem; there were only a few higher-ed institutions with computer science programs at the time, and most of them only offered minors in the field. While majoring in math and minoring in what would now be called computer science in college, Margaret fell in love with the field. “Proving theorems just wasn’t to my liking. I would come home and complain that the only numbers I ever saw were the ones at the bottom of the pages. But in computer science you could get up to your elbows and really apply problem-solving.”
After college, as a systems analyst at Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati, Margaret met what she would call her first “champion.” “At that time they had 13,000 employees in that division and I was the first woman manager hired there. My boss fought tooth and nail to hire me instead of my competitor, who was a man.” Due to the rarity of a woman in management, Margaret met the President of Proctor and Gamble and spent a few years there until moving out west with her husband.
Dr. Burnett’s next adventure was to start her own business, helping businesses in Santa Fe with computer programming. After her husband finished his degree there in Engineering, he got a job in Kansas and it was at the University of Kansas that Margaret got her Masters and PhD in Computer Science. “Nobody had ever mentioned graduate school to me as an undergraduate, until the day I graduated. I hadn’t even thought of that as an option. But it stuck in my head, because I loved school.” In Kansas, Margaret also had two children, taught a course at the University and started another business doing computer science consulting.
After earning her PhD, Margaret got a job as a professor at Michigan Tech and when an ad came up for a position at Oregon State University, she applied. When asked why she decided to pursue a career in academia instead of industry she said:
“One thing that I love about my job is the variety. Every day is different. And furthermore, I can make my own variety because I can choose any problems I want to work on as long as I can get published and show that it is indeed good work. I just love variety and change. Not only the variety of the problems I’m thinking about, but some of the time I’m teaching, and some of the time I’m doing research, and some of the time I’m working with students, and some of the time I’m doing other kinds of service.
Another reason I love it is that I’m changing computer science. So that’s awesome. And I feel like I get to work with the best people in the world. You know, the rest of the world can be kind of a mixed bag. But you get inside academia and you have idealistic people who want to talk about interesting things, and are excited about what they are about to do next. How many people get to work with people like that? I’m talking about faculty and I’m talking about students. Everyone I’m around. I’m so lucky.”
Since being at OSU, Margaret has proven herself a prolific researcher and collaborator with a knack for bringing people together to change the computer science industry. One of the collaborations she is most proud of has been working with a group of researchers from all over the nation and the world on the End Users Shaping Effective Software (EUSES) Consortium. The EUSES Consortium researches how end users can manipulate and create their own software. For several years Margaret directed the project. She now is working with the group on resolving some of the problems that arise when end users try to modify how a computer program works. “Sometimes users don’t realize that they are programming. For example when a person enters or changes a formula in a spreadsheet; that is programming. These people have a lot of the same problems that professional programmers have, but they don’t have the training necessary to fix their problems. So we are trying to bring some of the benefits of professional software engineering to end users in ways that fit into their needs and interests.”
One of Margaret’s pioneering research projects in this field has been to research how women and men problem-solve a malfunctioning computer program differently. Her research has found many differences, and she now is on a quest to see how problem-solving software can change to accommodate those differences. Another area of her research in this vein is how end users can de-bug their own software assistants. “Sometimes these intelligent assistants are helping you in much more critical tasks than recommending restaurants.” For example, Margaret explained how this research could help end users de-bug the in-home monitoring systems that many people use to keep track of their elderly family members.
While talking with Margaret, it is easy to see that she is an exceptional mentor. Continually throughout the conversation, she mentioned the insights that students have brought to all of her research projects at Oregon State. Her tenure working with ASE students is no exception. One of her ASE students, Rachel White, ended up as co-author on several of her research papers. “She came to us as just a freshman in high school and I used to tell people I was ready to admit her into graduate school.” Most of Dr. Burnett’s ASE interns didn’t start with skills in computer programming, but instead had good problem-solving skills, attention to detail and an interest in learning and contributing to the project that her team was working on at the time.
When asked about memorable mentoring experiences, Margaret said:
“Sometimes I do something that helps one of the younger people out: often it is something tiny, but it makes a big difference to them. And if they come around saying, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’ I always encourage them to pass it on. Because sometimes just the tiniest little thing that you do can make such a huge difference to somebody’s attitude about themselves and their future and what options are viable for them.
I had a student once who saw himself as a run-of-the-mill student headed for industry, and I convinced him to be my undergraduate research assistant. And it changed the way he thought about himself. He went on to get a graduate degree in computer science and then he joined Microsoft Research and now he’s been back and forth between Microsoft Research and Microsoft several times. For a while he was on Bill Gate’s personal advisory team, he got named one of the top 100 innovators in the world, and all I had to do was twist his arm a little bit. Just some little thing like that. I think of it as helping people be the best that they can be. All I have to do is lift them up a little bit and watch them fly away. And it is just amazing.”
Margaret also encourages the progress of female computer science professionals by co-chairing the Academic Alliance for the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT). NCWIT brings research-based practices to support and encourage women to go into computer science through online articles, kits and the Aspirations of Women in Computing Award for high-school women. “There are tons of jobs in computer science that cannot be filled. But that alone will not solve the problem of underrepresentation.” Universities all over the nation utilizing NCWIT resources are making a measurable difference in attracting women into computer science. In fact, some of Margaret’s students have competed for and won honors at the NCWIT contest throughout the years.
Due to mentors like Margaret participating in programs like ASE, Oregon students are offered high-quality, educational experiences, and opportunities to be successful in computer science fields. As one of Dr. Burnett’s 2012 ASE Interns, Amber Horvath, said, “If this internship has taught me anything, it’s how rewarding truly hard work can be . . . there are so many opportunities and things to achieve if you really put the effort in.” Mentors like Margaret not only bring a contagious enthusiasm to their research, they also tirelessly work to bring others into the field. We are lucky to work with such top-notch professionals here at Saturday Academy.