The challenges for women in STEM start long before women enter the workforce. During college, women in STEM fields often face different treatment than their male classmates. Men outnumber women in STEM occupations and STEM majors, and in particular, women of color represent a small fraction of scientists and engineers in the United States. In order to help foster a stronger community for women in tech, the UT Dallas Computer Science Department has hosted a monthly lecture series called the Grace Series. This semester, the Spring 2022 Virtual Grace Series featured Tamara Bassam, Program Committee member for the DFW Alliance of Technology and Women, Dr. Daphne Yao, Professor of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, Elizabeth and James E. Turner Jr. ’56 Faculty Fellow, and CACI Faculty Fellow, and Dr. Maral Mesmakhosroshahi, Deep Learning Researcher at Microsoft, Founder and President of Iranian Women in Computing, a nonprofit organization supporting Iranian women in tech in the United States.
The first talk of the Spring ’22 Virtual Grace Series featured Program Committee member for the DFW Alliance of Technology and Women, Tamara Bassam. Ms. Bassam is an innovative technology and business professional who is highly effective in different roles, from product management, pre-sales, post-sales, account, and project management. She is skilled in leading international, cross-functional teams, demonstrating exceptional communication skills, analytical thinking, and creative problem-solving. She approaches every business case with an entrepreneurial mindset, earning her Master’s in engineering entrepreneurship and Bachelors in electrical and telecom engineering. She is inspired by STEM activities for girls and believes in women’s leadership, and lives life to tell a great story.
During Ms. Bassam’s talk titled “Taking the Long View of Your Career,” she spoke about the concept of taking the long view of your career, specifically the notion that learning never stops, hard work always pays off, and most of all, not to be harsh on your future and current self. She started her talk by asking students to consider their college degrees as passports saying, “your degree and credentials are going to help you draft your resume. With your degree, you will be able to choose any job that suits your degree and what you are interested in.” She noted that “the fun thing about a career is that you get to build it one job at a time. When you become a professional, you will realize that jobs comprise tasks that when combined, generate results just like all your courses that you take for your degree.”
In the first portion of her talk, Ms. Bassam advised students that learning never stops. She provided a few examples of what would push a person to learn throughout the different phases of their career. “Throughout your career, you may hear about new technology and inventions that will impact your career. We live in an era where you cannot simply ignore new pieces of technology because, in the end, your professional career needs that knowledge. Therefore, it is so important to keep an open mind and keep learning and discovering new things,” she noted. She continued by saying, “Learning feeds the brain, so that we can stay successful and on top of our career. The moment you start thinking that you know everything and there is no need to learn more is when you set yourself up for failure because then other people will outsmart you. Throughout your career, you should invest in your career and stay up to date by taking courses where you can receive a certification of completion. By investing in workshops and certified courses, you are feeding and nurturing your brain so you can stay relevant to the market and be successful in your career.”
In the second half of her talk, she advised students that hard work always pays off. “Hard work is a commitment that we make to put forth the appropriate effort in any task we take on and accomplish. Commitment is not limited to a specific number of hours; rather it is a task and a journey toward a final result. You may have to challenge yourself to find a solution for an existing problem that you haven’t come across before, so the task and the commitment you take on sometimes may result in long hours. Other times it won’t, but it’s important to keep challenging yourself to solve the situation or problem at hand because, in the end, you will learn from it and build upon that experience.”
During the final part of her talk, Ms. Bassam warned students against being harsh on their current and future selves. Tamara advised the audience to remember, “Our journey is made of phases, and in each of them, we are not the same, our circumstances are not the same, our passion and energy are not the same. Aspects of your life will change throughout your journey, but it’s important to remember that challenges help you grow and learn.” She continued, “Yes, life is tough, and we will go through some ups and downs, but it is important to remember to be kind throughout it all. It is alright to take a step back and take a break because you can always return and catch up on things you may have missed.”
“During the hard times, don’t be so harsh on yourself; remember that you are trying, and you will always be good enough. Just look to the future and tell yourself that this too will pass and that you are good enough, and maybe you need to find the right place with the right environment. Be kind to yourself and manage your expectations. It is perfectly fine to aim high for things, but it is important to remember that sometimes things don’t go your way, or sometimes things go wrong, and it’s not necessarily your fault. Try to learn from your mistakes and be kind to yourself in the process,” Tamara concluded.
The second talk of the Spring ’22 Virtual Grace Series featured Dr. Daphne Yao, Professor of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, Elizabeth, and James E. Turner Jr., ’56 Faculty Fellow and CACI Faculty Fellow. Her research interests include building cyber defenses and machine learning for digital health, with a shared focus on accuracy and deployment. Her tool CryptoGuard helps large software companies and Apache projects harden their cryptographic code. Her patents on anomaly detection have been very influential in the industry.
Dr. Yao received the prestigious ACM CODASPY Lasting Research Award in 2021 for pioneering research contributions sustained for two decades in enterprise data exposure detection, high-precision vulnerability screening, and anomaly detection. In 2018, she was named an ACM Distinguished Scientist. Previously, she received the NSF CAREER Award and ARO Young Investigator Award. Dr. Yao received her Ph.D. degree from Brown University (Computer Science), Master’s degrees from Princeton University (Chemistry) and Indiana University (Computer Science), Bloomington, and B.S. degree from Peking University in China (Chemistry).
In her talk titled “Research Depth and Impostor Syndrome: A Personal Story,” Dr. Yao intertwined aspects of her technical work in cyber security with discussions of imposter syndrome. Dr. Yao explained that imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Dr. Yao shared personal experiences and used them to illustrate impostor syndrome’s complexity and its devastating effect on research persistence. The computing community needs to understand the issue – beyond simple self-help tips collectively. “Imposter syndrome is prevalent in both women and men. Everyone experiences failures; it is important to think about how you handle failures. Career success depends on numerous factors, but it is important to remember that one of the keys to a successful career is persistence, learning from mistakes, moving forward, and continue learning new things,” said Dr. Yao. She noted that you need the persistence to survive and thrive in any profession.
After working to successfully overcome the effects of imposter syndrome, Dr. Yao went back to research data breaches. When talking about her work with data breach prevention, she explained that there are multiple opportunities to stop an attack. She noted that it is impossible to achieve perfect security in cyber security because there will always be attacks that will manage to evade all forms of detection. She tied this idea back to the notion that it is impossible to please everyone, and there will always be someone who doesn’t agree with you or criticizes your work. “I advise you all to build a support system for yourself, identify allies and people who have faith in you. This will help you in more ways than one.”
Each year she helps organize and host a cyber security workshop called iMentor, which is a workshop co-located with the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (ACM CCS) that focuses squarely on attracting, mentoring, and career advising early-stage graduate students from underrepresented communities who want to pursue a career in computer security. The workshop allows mentors and mentees to connect and learn from one another while also learning new tools such as time management or writing an effective rebuttal.
The final talk of the Spring’22 Virtual Grace Series featured Dr. Maral Mesmakhosroshahi, Deep Learning Researcher at Microsoft and Founder and President of Iranian Women in Computing (IranWiC), a nonprofit organization supporting Iranian women in tech in the United States. IranWiC envisions a world where every person interested in Technology can have an equal chance to pursue their passion regardless of their gender and nationality via mentorship, collaboration, exchanging ideas and resources and holding regular meetups. Dr. Mesmakhosroshahi works on large-scale deep learning models. Before joining Microsoft, she worked at Konica Minolta Laboratory as an Imaging Scientist working on Deep Learning-based cancer cell detection and handwriting recognition projects. Dr. Mesmakhosroshahi has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a focus on Computer Vision for pedestrian detection in autonomous vehicles. Her expertise and research interests are in deep learning, natural language processing, and computer vision.
In her talk titled “Be One, Get One: How to Get the Most Out of Mentorship,” Dr. Mesmakhosroshahi went through the benefits of having or being a mentor in your career path, practical ways of finding a good mentor, and getting benefits from a mentorship relationship as a mentee or mentor. “Time and time again, mentor relationships have proven to help women navigate college, enter the workforce, and advance their careers. The topic and idea of mentorship has been a top priority for me for a long time.” Throughout her talk, Dr. Mesmakhosroshahi focused on the importance of mentorship in professional development, finding ways to get involved in an effective mentorship relationship, and what steps organizations and people can take to build this culture.
Dr. Mesmakhosroshahi explained that the purpose of mentorship is to connect one individual who has lots of knowledge and experience with someone who hasn’t gained the same knowledge and experience as themselves. “By having someone who knows more than yourself and can offer advice, guidance, and even be a sounding board for your thoughts, you stand to benefit from experience beyond your own. Whether in your career or life, having a mentor is crucial to all our continued growth and development,” she said.
She noted that mentorship is vital because it provides employees/students with the opportunity to develop and become more competent in their roles and prepare for growth opportunities in the future. She noted that providing these opportunities is important for organizations that want to attract, retain, and engage in their talent. “Specifically in STEM fields, mentorship is crucial. Mentorship is an experience that is transformative for both the mentor and mentee. Mentorship is important for an organization because it can promote a diverse and inclusive workplace, enhance employee engagement, attract more talent, retain high performers, and help grow a career and professional development. Studies have shown that companies that provide mentorship programs are 50% less likely to have employees leave their job. Effective mentoring relationships can engage and develop the talent of a broader group of students interested in STEM careers. As a result, it helps with the development of STEM professionals by increasing access, equity, and inclusion in STEM,” said Dr. Mesmakhosroshahi.
“Mentorship relationships include both psychological support and career support, whether it is emotional support and becoming a role model, or in the case of career support, provide career guidance, skill development, and sponsorship. A good mentee should set goals in advance, have clear expectations, follow through on commitments, not judge or break confidence, communicate effectively, and stay on track with mentoring relationships. Not only do mentees benefit from having a mentor, but mentors also benefit from mentorship by gaining leadership skills, improving communication skills, gaining new perspectives, and giving back and finding new talents,” she noted.
Towards the end of her talk, she spoke about the positive outcomes of mentorship in academia, which included the notion that graduate students will become more likely to persist in their academic decisions if they are engaged in positive mentoring experiences. She noted that graduate students cite positive mentoring experiences as the most critical factor in completing a STEM degree. Women and underrepresented students are better integrated into the STEM academic community if engaged in positive mentoring experiences, and positive mentoring experiences increase the recruitment of underrepresented mentees into graduate school and research-related career fields. She concluded her talk by saying, “Mentorship relationships include psychological support and career support, whether it is emotional support and becoming a role model, or in the case of career support, providing career guidance, skill development, and sponsorship.“
The Grace Series Talks at UT Dallas generally feature a wide range of speakers, including UT Dallas Computer Science and Software Engineering alumni, UT Dallas CS/SE professors, as well as other distinguished female and male technologists in the field. Drs. Pushpa Kumar, Janell Straach, and Linda Morales conceived the idea of the UT Dallas Grace Series as a result of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference (GHC) several years ago. Through the years, additional faculty members have become involved with the series, including Dr. Karen Mazidi, Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham, Dr. Mehra N. Borazjany, and Dr. Gity Karami. The conference, fittingly named after the woman who helped pioneer computer programming, Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, has involved presentations designed to bring research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront. Every year, GHC brings together the community of female and male technologists, highlighting the best minds in computing and spotlighting the contributions of women to computing. The UT Dallas Computer Science Grace Series lectures are fashioned after the GHC Conference format.
The Grace Series will continue in the fall with more featured guests from both academia and industry.
Since the inception of the UT Dallas Grace Series in the spring of 2015, a total of thirty-six inspiring women and men have spoken, including:
- Bhavani Thuraisingham, Louis A. Beecherl Jr. Distinguished Professor, UT Dallas CS Professor, and Executive Director of the UT Dallas Cyber Security Research and Education Institute (CSI) (click here for her story)
- Lily Wu, UT Dallas CS Professor and Director of the Data Communication and Data Management (DCDM) Laboratory (click here for her story)
- I-Ling Yen, UT Dallas CS Professor (click here for her story)
- Ranran Feng, UT Dallas CS Professor (click here for her story)
- Sanda Harabagiu, UT Dallas CS Professor, Erik Jonsson School Research Initiation Chair, and Director of the UT Dallas Human Language Technology Research Institute (HLTRI) (click here for her story)
- Rym Zalila-Wenkstern, UT Dallas CS Professor and Director of the Multi-Agent and Visualization Systems lab(click here for her story)
- Inga H. Musselman, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost for The University of Texas at Dallas (click here for her story)
- Jo Zhang of Fujitsu Laboratories of America (click here to read her story),
- Farokh Bastani, UT Dallas CS Professor, Excellence in Education Chair, and Director of the UT Dallas site of the NSF Net-centric and Cloud Software and Systems Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (NSF NCSS I/UCRC) (click here to read his story)
- Peggy Shadduck, Director of both the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) STEM Institute and of the Dallas/North Texas STEM Degree Accelerator Program (click here to read her story)
- Lymari Ames of Cisco Systems (click here to read her story)
- Romelia Flores an IBM Distinguished Engineer and Master Inventor (click here to read her story)
- Jill Blanchar, a Bank of America Information Security Executive (click here to read her story)
- Lisa Frey, State Farm Scrum Master (click here to read her story)
- Kimberly Snipes, USAA, VP, Chief Information Officer (click here to read her story)
- Catherine Walsh, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Loss Prevention for Johnson Controls’ Tyco Retail Solutions
- Nimmi Kannankutty, Deputy Division Director in the Division of Graduate Education (DGE) at the National Science Foundation (NSF).
- Karen Mazidi, UT Dallas CS Professor (click here to view her slides from her Grace Series Talk titled “Discovering Your Strengths”)
- Grace Kaldawi, Senior Software Engineer for Capital One Auto Finance, Amazon Web Services Certified Solutions Architect, and UT Dallas CS Alumnus (click here to read more)
- Sydeaka Watson, Senior Data Scientist at Korelasi Data Insights, LLC, an independent analytics consulting company (click here to read more)
- Ewa Musial, Senior Software Engineer at Blackhawk Network (click here to read more or click here to view slides from her presentation)
- Janell Straach, Rice University CS Professor, former UT Dallas CS professor, and one of the Grace Series founders (click here to read more or click here to view slides from her presentation)
- Uni Yost, CEO/Founder of GoAskJay (click here to read more or click here to view slides from her presentation)
- Smita Bakshi, President, and Co-Founder of zyBooks (click here to read more or click here to view slides from her presentation)
- Bhavani Thuraisingham, Louis A. Beecherl Jr. Distinguished Professor, UT Dallas CS Professor, and Executive Director of the UT Dallas Cyber Security Research and Education Institute (CSI) (click here to watch her talk)
- Betty Stewart, Provost, Executive Vice-President for Academic Affairs and tenured Professor of Chemistry at the University of North Texas at Dallas (click here to watch her talk)
- Neeti Khaitan Gupta, President and CEO of Accelerate Consulting Inc. (click here to watch her talk)
- Juliet G. Odima, CSM, CSPO, Executive Director, STEAM Achievers Associate Vice President, and Director, School of Data Science and Analytics, Colaberry Inc. (click here to watch her talk)
- Seda Mauer, Digital Accessibility Consultant at Seda Maurer Consulting (click here to watch her talk)
- Shobana Radhakrishnan, Director of Engineering for Android TV at Google (click here to watch her talk)
- Stephanie Adams, UT Dallas Erik Jonsson School Dean and Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair at The University of Texas at Dallas (click here to watch her talk)
- Elisa Bertino, a Samuel D. Conte Professor of Computer Science Cyber2Slab at Purdue University (click here to watch her talk)
- Fanny Dunagan, CEO & LinkedIn Content Strategist at Pathlynks (click here to watch her talk)
- Tamara Bassam, Program Committee member for the DFW Alliance of Technology and Women (Click here to watch her talk)
- Daphne Yao, Professor of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, Elizabeth and James E. Turner Jr. ’56 Faculty Fellow and CACI Faculty Fellow (click here to watch her talk)
- Maral Mesmakhosroshahi, Deep Learning Researcher at Microsoft, and Founder and President of Iranian Women in Computing, a nonprofit organization supporting Iranian women in tech in the United States (click here to watch her talk)
ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT
The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 4,000 bachelors-degree students, more than 1,010 master’s students, 140 Ph.D. students, 52 tenure-track faculty members, and 42 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2021. With the University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.