(Research) Heroes

Greetings from Manhattan, where I’m visiting for STOC and for the Women in Theory (WIT) workshop.

I attended the first WIT workshop as a PhD student, back in 2008. That workshop marked the moment when I first started to feel that I belonged in the CS theory community. I realized I was finally at the point where I could get a lot out of attending technical talks, and that I could even sometimes ask a good question. And there I was at the workshop, schmoozing with some of my biggest research heroes—Dorit Aharonov, Shuchi Chawla, Julia Chuzhoy, Irit Dinur, Cynthia Dwork, Joan Feigenbaum, Shafi Goldwasser, Tal Malkin, Eva Tardos, Tiffani Williams, Lisa Zhang—what a lineup! It was so inspiring to talk with the speakers at the workshop and to hear not only about their work, but about their lives, their families, and the challenges they’d faced in their careers. There was something very special about sitting in technical talks and looking around the room to see a sea of female faces, when I’d grown accustomed to being the only woman or one of only a few in the room. Then, to top it off, I had a conversation with Eva Tardos where she suggested coming to Cornell for a postdoc, which was my dream.

What an honor it was, then, to be invited as one of the faculty speakers at this year’s workshop. The organizers, Tal Rabin, Shubhangi Saraf, and Lisa Zhang, did an excellent job putting the event together, and they managed to create again the inspiring and collegial environment I’d experienced six years before. Both in 2008 and in 2014, a highlight of the program was a panel discussion addressing a wide range of issues.

Although it wasn’t the major topic of discussion, this year’s panel got me thinking about the pressures that academics experience (both internal and external) to prove that they are focused on their research above all else. There’s a bravado to it, the “I was at the office writing papers until 3am,” the “sure, I have a one-week-old baby, but there’s work to be done!” It’s even kind of fun at times, both to do it and to say it. Tal Rabin made a comment that made me realize, though: when we downplay our non-research lives and priorities, we do a disservice to ourselves and to our community as a whole. We hold up an unhealthy ideal, and we tell each other and ourselves a fiction about what it takes to be a successful researcher. How much more inspiring it is to see someone’s research success, and know he or she is also a devoted teacher, partner, parent, athlete, musician, community volunteer, or friend…

And so, here is my reality: I’m writing this post on a Saturday morning, while my baby is with a babysitter, and then I have a research call to take with a collaborator across the globe. But after that, I’ll be picking up a picnic lunch to enjoy outside with friends on this sunny afternoon.

Looking forward to a great program at STOC tomorrow! (And, yes, my baby will be there, too.)

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