Computer Science: Processing Natural Language, Women’s Involvement

Tenth graders studying computer modeling.

Last week, the Chicago chapter of Association for Women in Science (AWIS) hosted its annual Innovator and Motivator Awards dinner.  Dr. Barbara Di Eugenio and Dr. Lily Rin-Laures were awarded for their leading roles in research and mentoring.

Dr. Di Eugenio was honored for her research on natural language processing.  She is working to improve the way a computer “understands” the spoken and written language.  She gave a great example to illustrate the concept.  Let’s say we are sitting at a dinner table together and I ask “Can you pass the salt?” and, hopefully, you hand me the salt shaker.  What if I ask “Can you run a marathon?”  You (hopefully) wouldn’t get up from the table and go for a jog.  More than likely, you would tell me that you ran a marathon last year.  But, how do you get a computer to understand the difference that we all intuitively grasp?  That’s what Dr. Di Eugenio concentrates her research efforts towards.  She was also the focus of a recent news piece from her institution, the University of Illinois – Chicago.

A thought-provoking comment was made by Dr. Robert Sloan, who nominated Dr. Di Eugenio.  Dr. Sloan, who is the head of the computer science department at UIC, said that women are majoring in computer science at lower rates now than they were 20 years ago.  This comes as a big surprise, considering all of the national attention that has been given to enrolling and retaining women in STEM fields within the last 5-10 years.  Dr. Sloan noted that he hears from companies all over the US looking for computer science graduates.  Good job prospects for that career!  Spread the word.