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National Mentoring Month Profile: Lenore Blum

Posted on January 4, 2018
Dr. Lenore Blum (center) poses with participants at the first Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, held at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, where she served as Deputy Director. Credit: Lenore Blum
Dr. Lenore Blum (center) poses with participants at the first Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, held at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, where she served as Deputy Director. Credit: Lenore Blum

Dr. Lenore Blum, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science, (PAESMEM 2004), thrives on creating programs that expand mentoring relationships. Ranging from mathematics and science enrichment programs in middle schools to business start-up incubators, the mentoring courses created by Blum have produced a continuum of opportunities that accelerate both innovation and the technical prowess of women and girls.

During National Mentoring Month, Blum’s efforts are an example of the impact that can be achieved through visionary mentoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Blum began her career as an undergraduate major in mathematics at Carnegie Tech and Simmons College. She earned her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968. When she went to the University of California, Berkeley (UC, Berkeley) as a postdoctoral fellow, Blum discovered that her role model, Julia Robinson, a world famous mathematical logician, was not on the UC, Berkeley mathematics department faculty as Blum had anticipated. In fact, there were no women employed as regular faculty in mathematics departments at any major U.S. universities. Blum remembers, “That was my ‘aha’ moment.” The realization set Blum on a lifelong path to expand mathematics and computer science (CS) options for girls and women and encourage their leadership in the fields. (Robinson was eventually hired as a professor at UC, Berkeley, after becoming the first woman mathematician elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975.)

In the 1970s, Blum developed an action plan. She became one of the first women presidents of the Association for Women in Mathematics, a professional society. She taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, and established the world’s first computer science department at a women’s college. During her tenure, she produced a film about women and girls studying mathematics and computer science, based on the feeder program, The Math/Science Network, that she co-founded for middle- and high-school students in the San Francisco Bay area. The Math/Science Network evolved into Expanding Your Horizons Network conferences that still exist to develop leadership skills and introduce hands-on research projects in STEM fields for girls.

Blum’s work at Mills College caught the attention of Carnegie Mellon University’s then dean of the computer science department, Dr. Raj Reddy. In his offer letter to Blum in 1998, Reddy made clear he wanted Blum to exercise a dual role: practice her scholarship for the benefit of the institution and pump up the numbers of women pursuing computer science degrees. 

“I arrived at Carnegie Mellon in the fall of 1999 excited that there was interest in increasing the numbers of women in CS, which were very low at the time; however, I was concerned about Carnegie Mellon’s studies about women enrolled in CS and their recommendations for addressing it,” Blum recalls. The studies were conducted when there was a minority of women students in a predominantly male culture at the school’s CS department. In Blum’s view, feelings of isolation among the small number of women in the program may have affected the findings. Moreover, she argued that the recommendations to change the curriculum for CS women perpetuated gender stereotypes. Blum recalls thinking, “We need to change the culture, not just the curriculum.”

As a first step, Blum hired Carol Frieze, who became her Ph.D. student and helped her develop a new approach: Women@SCS (short for Women in the School of Computer Science) at Carnegie Mellon.

Together, the women argued in a research report that in any group, the majority has implicit, but critical, educational and professional advantages that are not available to the minority in the group. These include: role models, mentors, community, connections, experiential learning and leadership opportunities. “If we level the professional playing field by making these advantages explicit, it empowers everyone. It’s not rocket science – just common sense,” says Blum in recapping her 2005 report’s findings. She adds, “As the computing environment becomes more balanced, gender differences in computer science tend to dissolve—that is, the spectrum of interests, motivation and personality types of men and of women becomes more alike than different.”

Frieze, who now directs Women@SCS, says she and Blum merged cultural theory with computer science mentoring research, changing the trajectory at the time and reaping results. Today, nearly half the students majoring in computer science at Carnegie Mellon are women. “Dr. Blum is a visionary kind of mentor,” says Frieze. “Even after Women@SCS was up and running and successful, she was always asking what else we could do to empower women in this field. She understands that you have to give girls the same opportunities that boys have.” That understanding undergirds the programs Blum founded to expand opportunities for women in CS at Carnegie Mellon. For example:

  • Women@SCS provides mentor matching for women in the department, networking opportunities and role models.
  • Opportunities for Undergraduate Research in Computer Science (OURCS), an experiential learning conference for women created with Frieze, brings together undergraduate women studying CS nationwide to work in teams for three days to conduct hands-on research with guidance from faculty and industry leaders. They also receive near-peer mentoring from CS graduate students to help them prepare for graduate-level study.
  • Project Olympus focuses on exploring the commercial potential of university cutting-edge research and great ideas and is mindful to encourage and include women in STEM in the entrepreneurial process. The program now includes the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps incubator at CMU that, in turn, supports start-ups led by women whose products address both technical and societal needs, such as insoles that charge batteries while walking, wearables to improve conditions caused by Parkinson’s Disease, and mixed reality gaming to spark science learning in youth.

Currently on sabbatical from CMU, Blum is conducting mathematical research at the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing in Berkeley, California. Her passion for research, and eliminating challenges women mathematicians and computer science professionals continue to face in the workplace and academia, endure.

“We need to do better regarding equity of female faculty and female representation in our graduate programs. We need to make sure that our students continue to be successful when they enter a tech workforce that often has not been too hospitable for women. When I go to Silicon Valley, I don’t see many women in tech jobs or leading start-ups. That’s got to change.”

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Other PAESMEM women awardees who mentor in computer science include:

Dr. Linda Hayden (PAESMEM 2003), Professor of Computer Science, Elizabeth City University

Dr. Hayden has been influential in securing millions of dollars in scholarships and fellowships for underrepresented students in mathematics, science and technology fields. Hayden has developed an array of science mentoring programs, including the Celebration of Women in Mathematics program. She works diligently with undergraduate students, middle- and high-school girls, and K-12 teachers. 

Dr. Sheila Humphreys (PAESMEM 2012), Emeritus Director of Diversity, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at University of California, Berkeley (UC, Berkeley)

Dr. Humphreys’ mentoring spans three decades. Humphreys co-founded a ground-breaking program, the Computer Science Reentry Program, with two UC, Berkeley alumnae. This program provides an alternative path to graduate school for talented post-­baccalaureate reentry women and minorities.

Dr. Karen Panetta (PAESMEM 2010), Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Tufts University

Dr. Panetta is dedicated to inspiring youth to pursue engineering and science careers and to dispelling negative stereotypes about women engineers. Ninety-eight percent of all students graduating from Panetta’s program pursue a graduate degree within three years of receiving their undergraduate degree in engineering.