Halfway through college, I had an identity crisis. Spring was in the air in Hanover, New Hampshire, and my classmates were gearing up for Dartmouth’s famed Sophomore Summer term. Most of them would spend much of this term tubing down the Connecticut River, or hiking, or cycling to Dartmouth’s organic farm. But not me. Something was missing from my intellectual life. I was an English major and loved what I was learning, but felt I needed something more, something different. After spending my spring break in a ruminative funk, I had what felt like an epiphany. It was science. I missed science.
I always loved and excelled in math and science. I loved balancing equations in high school chemistry, I filled in for my high school calculus teacher in the months leading up to the AP exam and I loved reasoning about weather patterns from first principles in the earth science class I took my freshman year. Reconnecting with this love established continuity with an earlier life. It made sense to me.
Back on campus for the summer term, and with a new life direction to pursue, I eagerly thumbed through the course catalog looking for my first step back into science. I found Engineering Sciences 31: Digital Electronics at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering taught by Professor Linda Wilson.
I spent my summer learning about classical switching theory and building circuits in the lab. I loved the tidy logic of Boolean algebra and composing complicated logical operators from simple AND, OR and NOT gates. I loved breadboarding circuits and wiring together pieces that lit up when you pushed a button. I loved reasoning through the steps when I got things wrong to find where the problem was, and then figuring out how to make it right. (It’s worth mentioning that, still an English major, I did also write a poem that summer that rhymed “scent” with “burning filament.”)
While I was in the lab having my nerd awakening, something even more amazing happened. NASA put the first robot on Mars. And, my second epiphany in a matter of months, I made the tenuous-to-others but oh-so-clear-to-me connection – with what I’m learning I could do that! I could build robots! There were explosions of excitement going off in my head. I wrote the head of the Dartmouth Robotics Lab, Professor Daniela Rus, now the director of CSAIL at MIT, and asked if I could work in her lab. She gave me a work-study job that solidified my path to a career in computer science.
Cut to now, and I have the coolest job in the world. I’m a software engineer at Microsoft Research AI, working on projects across the artificial intelligence stack, from infrastructure to tools to implementing novel methods in machine learning toolkits. I work with some of the world’s leading researchers and engineers in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and I get to learn from them every day. I could not be more excited about the technology we’re building and the potential it has for solving some of the world’s biggest problems.
Looking back on this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I can’t help but notice that two of the pivotal players in my career path were technical women who supported and encouraged my interests. Whatever initially took me off the STEM path, my college professors Wilson and Rus put me back on it. Research shows that women’s motivation, participation and even perceived interest in STEM is enhanced by having other women in their working groups. That makes so much sense to me. While I’ve been lucky to have many incredible mentors – both female and male – over the course of my twenty years in computer science, I got into it in the first place because these women led the way.
This experience and many others are part of why an amazing team of cofounders and I created a group called Mavens. Mavens builds on a strong history of women’s groups within Microsoft Research and has a mission to support, connect and inspire the women within the research groups of Microsoft’s AI + Research division. We know that bringing women together to share our ideas and enthusiasm for technology will help us overcome obstacles, stay in the game and grow our careers together. We know our involvement is necessary for building the best technology we can today. And we know it’s critical to building the diverse and inclusive workforce we need to create future technologies that address the varied needs of the many kinds of people in our quickly changing world.
Anne Loomis Thompson is a Principal Research Software Development Engineer in MSR AI.