How Computer Science Became a Trumpet Player’s New Love

How Computer Science Became a Trumpet Player’s New Love

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How Computer Science Became a Trumpet Player’s New Love

A single computer science course…

proved to be a life-changing experience for Jennifer Widom—leading her from training to be an orchestral trumpet player to a path as a computer scientist, professor, dean and instructor of massive open online courses (MOOCs), workshops, and roundtables to students around the world.

Now the Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of the School of Engineering and Fletcher Jones Professor in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, she shares the story of her career journey. Jennifer leads her university’s efforts to train the next generation of data scientists to think broadly and apply their skills to solve global issues such as healthcare and sustainability.

In the article below, we highlight five sound bites from Jennifer’s recent interview. To hear the full interview, listen to the podcast interview below!

HOST: One of the interesting things, of course, that everybody always talks about with you is that you started out in music and ended up as the Dean of the School of Engineering. So, how did that happen?

JENNIFER: Well, I was an undergraduate in trumpet performance—so, probably not too many other engineering deans have a bachelor’s degree in orchestral trumpet performance. Late in my undergraduate years, I took a class called “Computer Applications in Music Research”. I took it as just one of the music electives that I had to take. I was in a conservatory setting, so I didn’t have to take much outside of music.

But, that gave me a little glimpse into computer programming, which I had no exposure to before that class. But, it got my interest piqued a bit and I took a couple more computer science classes and a little bit of math, got on a roll, and decided to go to graduate school in computer science, instead of trying to audition to enter a symphony orchestra as a trumpet player.

HOST: What have you found to be the most exciting developments in computer science during your tenure?

JENNIFER: I’ll go on two sides. One of them that’s been really exciting for me—and I’m going to just repeat myself—is the diversity of students and faculty, for that matter, who are interested in pursuing computer science. Again, for me, it’s been so gratifying to see it move from kind of a niche, narrowly defined field to something that’s really blossomed in both the people who are pursuing it and in how it’s influencing other parts of the university and society as a whole.

I think, for the last few years, we’ve seen the incredible explosion of interest in artificial intelligence. And the trigger for that has been advances in hardware and the collection of data that’s suddenly made it possible to do tremendous things with machine learning and AI systems. I think when we look back in another 10 or 20 years, that’s going to have been a major inflection point that’s happening just around now. But, time will tell on that one. I think the jury is still out to some extent.

MORE: The Chief Data Officer of a Fortune 200 company views failure as a “learning cycle”. Find out why here.

HOST: Let’s talk a little bit about your “instructional odyssey”… I remember you stepping down as Associate Dean and saying, “I’m going to travel and teach people around the world!” What inspired you to do this?

JENNIFER: Well, I think it was a combination of things. First of all, the experience of teaching the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course)—it wasn’t actually called a “MOOC” when I did it back in 2011—as a course that reached many people was, for me, one of the most invigorating and exciting things I think I’ve done in my whole career. At that time, there were just three courses that were put online: machine learning, artificial intelligence, and my database class. And the excitement and enthusiasm and gratitude of those thousands of students all over the world inspired me to put everything into it.

So, I spent that few months and that was all I thought about. And I really just loved reaching people all over the world and seeing how much it meant to them to have this level of course accessible and free to them. So, I loved that. I also have always loved travel and when my sabbatical came along I think the third component was that I decided that I didn’t just want to go to another university and work in a research group or write a book. I wanted to do something that had real impact on people. And I thought about working at a non-profit or a foundation for my sabbatical.

But then, just sort of “out of the blue”, I had this idea—I think based on my experience with the MOOCs and travel—that the way I could best influence people directly would be to show up and teach them. Just like I was teaching them online, I could show up and teach them in person, which, of course, is a different experience. So, those things coming together, plus some creativity around funding, and knowing how to travel and having a few contacts, it came together. It was, I’d say, a fairly unusual enterprise, but it worked!

HOST: What has been the impact of this “odyssey” on you and also on others that you’ve taught?

JENNIFER: The impact on me is, in part, just very gratifying for me to see and meet and teach these people. So, for me, that’s probably the main thing. I also learned how to teach material in a fairly configurable fashion and it’s just very interesting how different cultures and different groups of people with different preparation respond to the material. It got to the point where I could start to know to get a sense of the audience and then adjust as I went based on that audience.

The variety both within an audience and from different audiences was huge, yet I was able to customize the material for them kind of “on the spot”. That’s something I really learned to do. It’s something that I haven’t had to do here at Stanford because when I teach classes at Stanford it’s more or less the same audience each time I teach. So, there’s not as much need to adapt.

HOST: Where do you think would be the most exciting, interdisciplinary field involving computer science and some other field?

JENNIFER: I would say the nearest term, highest impact on humanity is in health. No question about it. But, I think there’s other very important issues. Sustainability, for example, is going to involve a lot of data science, also. I think that’s another large, societal impact. We have data scientists here working on understanding poverty patterns, for example. That could also have an impact on society. So, I think there’s going to be some pretty big impacts on society as well as discovery across the university. But, again, I’d put health as number one.

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