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An interview by Christie Jackson, February 21, 2000
Dawn Lawrie graduated from Dartmouth in 1997 with high honors in Computer Science and a minor in Chemistry. Dawn was actively involved in research during her undergraduate years, participating in a first-year research internship with Professor Michael Walters in the Chemistry Department, and becoming a Presidential Scholar with Professor Dave Kotz in the Computer Science Department where she conducted research on mobile agents. During her senior year, she completed an honors thesis, developing the idea of a self-organized file cabinet. Dawn also participated in the first year of WISP's e-mentoring program where she was linked to a mentor from IBM and learned about the corporate side of Computer Science. Currently in her second year of a Computer Science graduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Dawn is focusing on research and her Master's projects.
Christie Jackson '96, who was a member of WISP's Alumnae Advisory Council, interviewed Dawn to learn about her path since college.
That's a hard question! I always thought teaching would be a good choice. But I can remember in the 5th grade wanting to be an astronomer after I saw a magazine on how to send a manned mission to Mars. This was the first time I realized that science could be a career. As time went on, I realized I was a strong math student and I excelled in the science. I began falling into science as my abilities fueled my interest. My mother used to read articles to me about female scientists; from those articles I realized I wanted to be a woman on the frontier I wanted to leave my mark through scientific work.
I actually thought I wanted to be a Chemistry Professor when I first matriculated at Dartmouth. I had already worked in two Chemistry internships before college. It was really by chance that I fell into Computer Science. My first-year advisor turned out to be my father's favorite Professor at Dartmouth (my father is a '68). I thought it would be fun to take a class with the same Professor, so I took Computer Science 5 and I loved it. I found out that I was not interested in the theory behind Chemistry, but that I was interested in the theory behind Computer Science. The types of problems in Computer Science — more engineering and math oriented — are better suited for my interest and abilities.
At first, I thought I would give industry a chance. After the way I fell into Computer Science, I didn't want to go get a Ph.D. just because I had always seen myself as a Professor. I was hired as a software engineer at Teradyne, Inc. I found the work missing the freshness that I found in research. In research one knows that one is pushing the envelope of what has been done before. That really excites me.
The research I am working on is the best part of my work. I am working with my advisor on a method of organizing information. A problem that I see with personal computing is the huge amount of information that people have available to them with no way to organize it. In this project we use words found in a document collection to generate a hierarchical menu that a user would use to find the document of interest. If any part of this research were integrated into public use, then I would be very happy.
I wouldn't change a thing. While I am not using Chemistry per say, it is quite valuable. I have noticed that some people in Computer Science say "how do you do research?" because they have never been exposed to the scientific method in a lab setting. Chemistry showed me that we need to conduct research in the best manner that our resources will allow us to. There is no one correct way to do research, it's all about adapting your work and your approach.
If you like science but aren't thrilled what you found in high school, explore once you get to college. In high school, most students are not exposed to scientific subjects in a way that is meant to excite you; high school is more about general principles and the basics needed to continue on in college.
It's easy for women to become intimidated in predominately male-dominated science fields. And, once someone is intimidated, it's hard to have the courage to go out and try new things. I believe that's why some students feel they have to pick the exact path they want to take early on in college, or before they arrive.
I would like to mandate that all advisors tell their advisee's "take one class that is not on the path you see yourself on." The hardest thing is to make students look around them and see all the wonderful interdisciplinary and non-traditional subjects that are out there. Don't be too focused on one end goal, or you may lose sight of what a liberal arts education should be about. In my own experience, I would be a chemist now, if it was not for that one Computer Science class I just happened to take.
Last Updated: 10/20/10