Over the past decade, computer science has gone from a topic for specialists to an essential tool for professionals in nearly every field. Dr. Susan Davidson of the University of Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of this sea change, including co-founding one of the first research centers for bioinformatics in the country.
In this Q&A, she shares insights from her long career, as well as what it takes to succeed as a woman in STEM (she is a former CIS department chair, former Deputy Dean of SEAS, and faculty founder of the Advancing Women in Engineering Program at Penn). Students from non-computer science backgrounds can learn from world-class faculty like Dr. Davidson in an affordable, online format through Penn’s online Master of Computer and Information Technology degree.
Can you tell us a bit about your own journey — what originally sparked your interest in mathematics, bioinformatics, and computer science?
Dr. Davidson: I was the child of academic parents at Cornell University. My father was an applied mathematician, so I was very drawn to math as a child. And my mother was a plant scientist, so I think the intersection of math and biology was inherited from my parents.
I first took a programming course because my sister, who was also a biochemist, said presciently — this was in the mid-1970s — that the future of biochemistry was computational. So I took a programming course with her and realized it was mathematical and rigorous, but that you could actually see output (unlike proving a theorem), and I loved that about it!
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments?
Dr. Davidson: I am proudest of the creation of the Center for Bioinformatics [now subsumed by the Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics] at Penn. This was in the mid-1990s, in collaboration with computer science colleagues Peter Buneman and Val Tannen, statistician Warren Ewens, and two developmental biologists, Chris Overton and David Searles. This was at the very beginning of the Human Genome Project. While many biomedical researchers were aware that bioinformatics was a direction they needed to go in, Chris Overton understood it better than most and could articulate it — he was very visionary. And I’m very organized, so we made a great pair in co-directing the Center.
The Genomics and Computational Biology graduate degree program came out of the Center as well as the undergraduate degree concentrations in computational biology in both the Arts & Sciences’ Biology department and the Penn Engineering school. So I think I’m proudest of that work because we were way ahead of the curve.
What challenges did you encounter along the way?
Dr. Davidson: I think the biggest challenge was combining family and career. I got married right out of college, so we immediately had a “two body” problem: I went to Princeton for my PhD, my husband was based in Philadelphia, he commuted back and forth from Princeton, and we had *absolutely* no money — which was interesting when gas prices were surging!
And then, as I was graduating from Princeton, we had our first child — it was very awkward interviewing for faculty positions when I was 7 months pregnant! I also had no idea whether I could manage a family and a career. Starting a career with a 3-month old, having a second child three years later, and dealing with terminally ill parents (my father died of a brain tumor and my father-in-law developed Alzheimer’s before I came up for tenure) — the combination of family and career was very hard.
I think some things are easier now because most companies have better policies than were in place when I was trying to do it. But I think that no matter what, the whole tension of work and family is always difficult to play out.
How did you succeed at doing both?
Dr. Davidson: My father was not one to give advice, but the one thing he told me was, “Don’t think about it, just do it.” I think that’s actually very good advice, because people spend way too much time wondering if they can do something, and if they just try, very often they succeed! Sometimes they fail, but failure is not the end of the world.
It’s OK to fail. You’ll figure out another way around and succeed eventually. I think the fear of failure, combined with the imposter syndrome that many people have, can be debilitating. Don’t listen to the inner demons telling you you can’t do it!
What advice would you give to yourself today if you were starting out your education?
Dr. Davidson: First of all, “don’t think about it, just do it!” But I think the other thing was that I didn’t understand the value of relationships. I thought that my success in life was based on merit, which is part of it, but who you know and who they know and the connections between people are an important part of your success. I would have liked to understand that better earlier on — it probably would have made my life a little easier.
Many of the applicants for the MCIT Online degree are making career shifts — what counsel do you have for someone who is moving into the space without a STEM background?
Dr. Davidson: I haven’t been through this personally, because I grew up in STEM, it was part of my DNA. But I’ve observed a lot of students. I was recently talking to a student in our data science program, and he said that the first three months that he was here, he was absolutely drowning. He felt that he was never going to make it or understand anything. I think my younger son, who did the MCIT degree, also had a feeling of being completely out of his depth initially.
But they persisted and found a way of stabilizing. So I think a lot of it is not listening to the inner demons, the voices that say you can’t do it or that you’re not good enough. If you were admitted into the program, someone saw something in you. It may take you a while to shift your thought process into more of a computational thought process, but you can do it. Persist, work hard, and eventually things will get easier.
There are also a lot of online resources available: You can take online courses, and you can find tutorials on particular topics. But no matter what, when you arrive here and you’re surrounded by other smart students, some of whom have been programming for years, you may feel that you’re out of your depth — you just have to persist.
Is there anything you would tell women specifically about pursuing this career trajectory?
Dr. Davidson: It is a great career path, especially for combining family and career — unlike biology, where you have to be in the lab, you can often work remotely. However, women have to be prepared for the fact that it’s still a very male-dominated field, and it’s going to be a different culture than what they experience here at Penn. I think that tech businesses as a whole are aware that culture is a problem they need to fix, but until then you have to be prepared for potentially being the only woman in the room, for getting spoken over, and for inappropriate comments.
What do you think is unique about the MCIT and MCIT Online experience?
Dr. Davidson: I think MCIT is one-of-a-kind, because we take people who do not know computer science and bring them up to speed. The program is also very hands-on: It’s really hard to jump into STEM when you come from a field where you’re thinking in completely different ways, so we’ve taken that into account.
And then consider the MCIT program in the context of the university, with connections to other departments, other disciplines, the research you can get involved in, and the connections you can make — because our students are fantastic, they get great jobs and are probably our strongest recruiters!
Unlike our on-campus students, online MCIT students never leave the “campus” because the online community is the campus; students can graduate and work for years and still be part of that same online community. So I think it will be really interesting to see the dynamics of the social networks and relationships that develop with the online MCIT program.
Beyond becoming a software engineer at a FANG company, what are some of the other common trajectories you see among Penn Engineering students?
Dr. Davidson: I had a student who was really interested in urban planning and researched what other cities have done with data to analyze traffic patterns and the impact of various things like one-way streets, bike lanes, or stop signs. He really wasn’t so interested in the Google and the Facebook type companies — what he cared about was civic involvement. We have other students that have combined their love of medicine with computation and gone on to do work in hospitals.
It’s very individual. A lot of our students go for the “sure” thing (the FANG companies) because that widens the opportunities they can get later, but my personal favorites are the ones that follow their passions and apply what they’ve learned to something completely new.
How have the motivations for your students changed in the last 5 or 10 years?
Dr. Davidson: I think people are now interested in starting programs such as MCIT because they understand the impact that technology has on their lives. Think back 5 years — Alexa didn’t have the impact that she has today in our daily lives, because natural language processing hadn’t evolved to a state where we could use voice-activated control as successfully as we do now. Self-driving cars were not really a thing either.
Technology has made huge, huge strides over the past decade, and is affecting absolutely everything you do. And people get it — they know computer science isn’t just sitting in a room looking at code in front of terminal all day. I think that’s the motivator: 20 years ago, you had to convince people that computer science actually had something to do with real life.
Not everybody’s going to be a computer scientist and that’s fine, but I think that once you’ve gotten out in the real world and found your passion, you realize, “Wow, I need to understand something about computation even if I’m not going to be the programmer, ultimately.” And that is what motivates our students today.