Archive for May 23, 2012

NCWIT Pioneer Awards to two women of Project Mercury: Following their passions

The NCWIT Aspirations Awards have highlighted the achievements of high school women aiming for computing careers.  Last night, NCWIT started a new award, the Pioneer Award, given to women who paved the way for others in computing.

The awardees were Patricia Palumbo (left in picture) and Lucy Simon Rakov (right), who were both programmers on the Project Mercury Team.  I loved their talks, not just for what they did on Project Mercury, but what they did the rest of their lives.

Patricia graduated with a mathematics degree from Barnard College, one of only two women.  She was recruited by IBM and worked on the re-entry phase.  I loved her story of what she did after that.  She earned her Master’s degree in piano, and did work in computer music composition and image processing (Media Computation!).  She has retired from computing, but still teaches piano and records in her home studio.  She said that mathematics and music have always been her passions, and she saw the computer as “a general purpose tool” that could help any pursuit, any occupation, including music.

Lucy was on a team at IBM of 100 mathematicians, 10 of whom were women.  They were among the programmers building the first real-time control system.  She worked on the launch sequence, and in particular, worked on importing live radar data into the orbit computations.  After IBM, she ran her own business, Lucy Systems Inc. (LSI) for 27 years.  She encouraged the audience to follow their passions.  She said that, when she’s doing mathematics and computing, she’s in “flow” and loses track of time.  She told us to find those kinds of jobs.

We’ve talked here before about the issues of culture that drive women from computing.  Here were two women who got into computing before the culture we know today was established, and they were driven by what the computer could do, and what they could do with a computer.  That’s what we need to convey, in order to draw more diverse people into computing.

May 23, 2012 at 8:51 am 2 comments


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