We Don’t Need Beards to Achieve in Computing!

by Ann Gates

Ann Gates

Ann Gates


“Did you know that all great computer scientists have beards?” This was posed to me by a professor in the hallway when I was a Ph.D. student, and it had a profound impact on me. Why? Because many of the computer scientists to whom I was exposed did, indeed, have beards, and I wondered where a Mexican-American female would fit in this world.

My educational and professional career path has been non-traditional. My mother had only an 8th grade education and my father was a high school graduate; however, both of my parents valued education, and they instilled the importance of a college degree in their five children. Following completion of a baccalaureate degree in science with a major in mathematics, I considered attending graduate school, but lacked the confidence to do so. Instead, I worked as a software developer for a large government contractor. After I married and began a family, and when my husband decided to go to law school, I became a mathematics teacher at a high school in a small town of 600. At the age of 38, I decided to go back to school, taking undergraduate courses in computer science. Following a presentation by a National Science Foundation (NSF) program officer about the underrepresentation of women and minorities in doctoral study and the professoriate, and with encouragement from Dr. Andrew Bernat, I decided to pursue graduate education, finishing an M.S. degree in Computer Science at UTEP in 1990 and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from New Mexico State University in 1994.

That brings me back to the day that the professor in the hallway described great—and bearded—computer scientists. I related that incident to my family, and when I graduated, my daughters presented me with a cake they baked that they decorated with a face of a woman and a beard made of cotton. I knew then, I was a great computer scientist in their eyes.

I am a strong advocate for diversity and the value of involving individuals with different perspectives, life experiences, areas of expertise, and culture. I joined the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) faculty in 1995, committed to mentoring students with the capability to pursue graduate studies, but who may lack the confidence to pursue their dreams. UTEP is an emerging national research university at the heart of the U.S.-Mexico border and an ideal place to make a significant impact. Almost all of the students come from El Paso County – one of the poorest in the country – and a significant number of graduates are first-generation college students.

I created and implemented the Affinity Research Group (ARG) model, a set of practices built on a cooperative team framework. These practices support the creation and maintenance of dynamic and inclusive research groups. Within these groups, students learn and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for research and cooperative work. Faculty mentors in an ARG design activities to develop students’ disciplinary knowledge, research abilities, and team skills that will prepare them for success in research, academe, and the workforce. I also work with other leaders from Hispanic-Serving Institutions through the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI) to recruit, retain and advance Hispanics in computing through shared effective practices. I am inspired by how higher education and involvement can lead to accomplishments that propel our students to make contributions to their community and the world.

On the research side, I have worked with other researchers to establish the Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence that brings together researchers from computer science, environmental science, computational science, and geological sciences. Our expertise lies in building collaborative interdisciplinary teams and developing cyberinfrastructures to conduct impactful research on climate change and modeling of Earth’s structures. This project brings a vision to the UTEP campus, and provides expertise for building and leveraging large-scale data infrastructures.

The two scientific concentrations associated with the center are geoscience and environmental science. These have the potential to engage students on a personal level. Climate and geology are particularly compelling to UTEP students. Shielded by mountains on three sides, El Paso is located in the upper elevations of the Chihuahuan Desert, where wetlands and riverside animal habitats were once prevalent; however, changes in the environment have had an impact. Because of this, there is an inherent personal connection to environmental changes and humanity.

I urge each of you to leverage your diversity, and the value of involving individuals with different perspectives, life experiences, area of expertise, and culture, including those who may not look like us, to create better solutions and advance innovation. Take a small step today and really listen to someone with a viewpoint that differs from your own; see if you can appreciate their wisdom.

Anita’s quilt provides evidence of how women from many different backgrounds have had impact. Let’s celebrate our differences—we don’t need to grow beards to achieve in computing!

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