Data Driven

From teaching robotics to building AI technology, these three Barnard alumnae cracked the code to successful careers in computer science

By Kira Goldenberg ’07

An illustration of a data chip

When Galina Datskovsky ’83 was a student at Barnard, she was one of the few undergraduates in her class to major in computer science and often the only woman in her courses across the street at Columbia. She remembers it being a somewhat solitary experience. “It was kind of an interesting thing to be at Barnard but not to be at Barnard,” she says.

A lot has changed since then. Computer science has become a tremendously popular major nationwide: The number of undergraduates majoring in computer science more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, according to The New York Times, to the point where demand for spots in classes often exceeds supply.

And though women overall still earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science at far lower rates than men do, at Barnard it has become one of the College’s top 10 most popular majors, right up there with perennial favorites like economics and English. The College only recently moved the major in-house with the launch of its Computer Science Program in 2019, but for decades, alumnae have followed their passion for the discipline regardless, during and after their time at Barnard.

Within the College, that includes the Athena Digital Design Agency, which launched in 2015 under the auspices of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies. The agency — its apt tagline: “Think Bold. Code Bold. Be Bold.” — offers coding workshops and professional web-development services to real-world clients. Through Columbia, students have long been able to complete the major, and by 2017, the number of faculty advising Barnard students had increased from one to three to meet the growing demand.

And of course, in the world at large, Barnard alumnae pursue their dreams wherever they lead, following the College ethos of “majoring in unafraid.”

We spoke to three alumnae from across the decades who have done just that.

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Headshot of Galina Datskovsky
Galina Datskovsky. Photo credit: Jon King

Galina Datskovsky ’83 

Galina Datskovsky knew she wanted to be a computer scientist by the time she graduated from high school at age 15 and started at Barnard. Her parents and two older brothers had all pursued careers in STEM. “I knew from the day I set foot in the door, that’s what I wanted to do,” says Datskovsky, a technology expert who specializes in fields such as compliance, information governance, artificial intelligence, and data analytics.

Datskovsky graduated from Barnard in just three years and immediately entered a Ph.D. program at Columbia, where she studied natural language processing, a type of artificial intelligence that seeks to improve computers’ ability to understand the complexity of spoken language. She went on to do stints at IBM and Bell Labs before joining forces with a couple of friends in the late ’80s to start a company, MDY Advanced Technologies, that tracked and organized documents, one of the earliest moves toward digital record-keeping in a world that was still overwhelmingly analog.

“We were ahead of our time, and that gave us a competitive advantage,” says Datskovsky, pausing to lift up her terrier, Luke — the latest in a long line of pets named after Star Wars characters — so he could say hello. When her company was sold to CA Technologies, then one of the largest tech companies in the world, Datskovsky went to work for them, running the informational governance business there.

“That job was very planning-intensive, organizationally intensive, because of all the time-zone differences, cultural differences, and an extremely travel-intensive job,” she explains. Her husband, whom she met when she was a senior at Barnard and he was a first-year Ph.D. candidate, had a travel-heavy job too. One year, they both randomly overlapped in Switzerland on Valentine’s Day.

 When you say no man is an island ... I think I really have to put Barnard into that.

Eventually, Datskovsky says, CA was sold, and then sold again to HP, and she finally grew tired of the jet-setting life. She decided it was time to give her notice.

“That was my first time leaving a job without having anything lined up,” she says. She moved into consulting for technology startups, and one of them, VaporStream, eventually brought her on as CEO. The company offers clients — from financial services and governments to healthcare companies and higher education institutions — a secure messaging system that meets a variety of security regulations and compliance rules. “Even if your chats are secure, your privacy is not there,” she says. For example, encrypted texting apps like WhatsApp protect the content of user messages, but the company still collects individual metadata on its users, like where they are texting from and where their texts are going. VaporStream, Datskovsky says, only collects metadata in aggregate, preventing the company from being able to identify individual users. It also prevents other potential privacy violations, like screenshots or forwarding, which allows businesses to remain fully in control of their communications.

Through all her adventures, Datskovsky never forgets her roots; her family emigrated as refugees from Russia in 1976. They were allowed to carry $250 per person.

“I remember going to a store with my mother and thinking, ‘I’d love to have that candy or those potato chips,’ but I’d never ask her for it, because I knew she needed real food,” she recalls. “When you say no man is an island ... I think I really have to put Barnard into that.” She says that the scholarship the College gave her allowed her to build an innovative career in technology development, working with earlier technologies that paved the way for the systems in use across the world today.

“I am eternally and forever grateful to Barnard,” she says. “The fact that I was able to get this education. ... How much more can you do for somebody? Everything else was gravy.”

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Headshot of Cecily Morrison
Cecily Morrison. Photo credit: Jonathan Banks

Cecily Morrison ’02

Cecily Morrison, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, didn’t originally set out to devote her career to inclusive design-oriented artificial intelligence. She majored at Barnard in ethnomusicology.

“I was determined to have a career in the arts,” she says.

Still, she feels that her time in Morningside Heights helped forge her into the research scientist that she ultimately became — one focused on building AI technologies to help people who are blind understand who is around them. “It wasn’t necessarily one particular skill that I learned — it was having my thinking challenged and stretched, which has prepared me for a career of challenging myself and challenging others,” Morrison says. “Is this really the right thing? Is this something we could think about in a different way?”

Her journey from undergrad to Microsoft began with a Fulbright scholarship in Hungary, where she remained for two additional years to teach English. Her students all looked at individual computer screens set against the classroom wall, which felt counterintuitive to the interaction and communication required for language learning. It was that frustration that first turned her attention to technology development.

“Not having a handle on technology means I didn’t really control the interactions my students were having in classes,” she says. “In order to have technology in the classroom, I then had to adopt particular ways of teaching that didn’t reflect the goals that I wanted.”

It wasn’t necessarily one particular skill that I learned — it was having my thinking challenged and stretched, which has prepared me for a career of challenging myself and challenging others.

In pursuit of more useful technologies, Morrison earned a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Cambridge and went on to help the U.K.’s National Health Service look at the implementation of technology to support care in mental health. She then brought her health tech expertise to Microsoft Research.

In her current role at the company, Morrison uses an inclusive design perspective — which seeks to correct mismatches between people’s needs and their environment — and her team works to improve accessibility for people living with disabilities.

“The choices that we make often inadvertently change that environment, and they can include or they can exclude,” she says. “Are we fundamentally changing someone’s access to the world by the decisions that we make?”

With those principles in mind, Morrison has specifically directed her attention to developing tools to help people who are blind, including one of her own children, understand their social environment. Her work incorporates stakeholders throughout the process as she develops both physical products and the algorithms that will run them. This participation is crucial, because watching future users interact with the prototypes both reveals what features need adding or tweaking and improves the accuracy of the AI algorithms the devices depend on.

One example, called Project Tokyo, involves a headset equipped with cameras and sensors that feed data to a computer and helps people who are blind or have low vision by using sounds to alert wearers to people’s identities and locations in their vicinity. If the bystander is someone in the headset’s facial recognition system, it will say that person’s name into the wearer’s ear. This functionality enhances the wearer’s ability to proactively approach others rather than having to wait for someone to come and identify themselves and start a conversation, Morrison explains. During that development process, the team came to realize that children often see adults at chest height, meaning they had to build the device in a way to prompt younger users to lift their heads to be able to employ the facial recognition technology. If a system is well built, she says, its users aren’t always aware of how they are using technology to expand their own capabilities.

“They might say, ‘It makes me feel like I have freedom’ or ‘It makes me feel like I can just be,’” she says.

After years of living and working in the U.K., Morrison has a clipped accent that’s not British, exactly, but is a far cry from her Boston roots. Her ambiguous speech patterns become a game with the kids who pilot her work.

“Lots of kids who are blind like this game, because they like accents, and they can never guess [mine],” she laughs.

But continually eschewing assumptions is what drives Morrison, an ethos of inclusivity that she dates back to her undergrad days.

For Morrison, Barnard is a place where “people from different perspectives on the world were constantly challenging each other.” Needless to say, she was predisposed to think about what the world felt like for others, providing the perfect foundation for her own path in life.

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Headshot of Danah Screen
Danah Screen

Danah Screen ’15

Danah Screen was officially a biology major. But she couldn’t ignore the siren song of computer science.

“In my house, ‘computer science’ was like fixing the desktop and getting it up and running,” she says. But she’d loved being on the robotics team in high school, so she ended up auditing a bunch of computer science classes unofficially at Barnard, sitting quietly in the back of various lecture halls. Once, Screen almost got caught when a TA asked her what discussion section she was in, but another student came over with a question, and she bolted.

“It got to the point where I would take notes sometimes in class, and if a friend would miss it, I’d be like, ‘Here are the notes,’ and my friend would be like, ‘Why are you like this?’” Screen laughs, then continues, “What you’re passionate about always finds a way to come back full circle.”

The transition started while Screen was still at Barnard: She applied to be assistant coach of the robotics team at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx. She landed the role, working with students in the F.I.R.S.T. Tech Challenge, a robotics competition for students in grades 7-12 in which they went head-to-head designing, building, and programming a robot, the same extracurricular she’d loved participating in during her own high school experience. At Horace Mann, she aimed both to be supportive and to cultivate a spirit of independence in her students so that, on game day, they knew they could depend on one another.

Her enthusiasm was contagious.

“In March of my senior year, they offered me a full-time job,” she says. “But in the back of my head, I was like, ‘I should apply to grad school for biomedical engineering.’” She took her quandary to Elida Martinez-Gaynor, Screen’s mentor in the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP). (CSTEP provides yearly support and opportunities for a cohort of students of color from New York State who are pursuing careers in STEM-related fields.) Martinez-Gaynor told her to take a leap of faith and accept the job, Screen recalls. She stayed at Horace Mann for five years, becoming so beloved that a student described what would typically be a stressful period cramming before a competition as “one of the most fantastic weekends of my life.”

This ability to motivate students to work with enthusiasm is a central part of Screen’s operating philosophy: Everyone waiting to speak to her on Zoom encounters this Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

To that end, Screen also involved her Horace Mann students in running camps for local children in Barbados and Rwanda, both projects aimed at expanding access to robotics education. She watched as camp participants felt their worlds widen.

“These kids are just as brilliant. They should have all the opportunities as my students in the States,” she says. It’s a passion first ignited by an undergrad experience teaching in a school in Harlem: “A lot of who I am as a teacher, as an educator, as a global contributor, comes from my Barnard experience.”

What you’re passionate about always finds a way to come back full circle.

Screen, who earned a master’s degree in computer science from Fordham in 2020, moved over to Dalton at the start of the current school year. There, as the head of the robotics program, she co-teaches the coding half of the curriculum, working with a colleague who has expertise in building the physical components of robots. She is also the interim chair of the school’s engineering department. As such, she had to plan how to keep students who are used to collaborating in-person on builds engaged throughout the remote fall trimester, mailing them prototyping kits. Most students returned to on-site schooling in early 2021.

“It’s been so nice to see some of my students in person. I was like, ‘I’ve never seen you outside of a Zoom box,’” she says.

She’s hopeful that, by summer, there will be plenty of enthusiasm shared among her students for upcoming robotics competitions, delayed a few months by the pandemic. Well, that and some Barnard spirit.

“I talk about Barnard all the time,” she says. “I tell all my students: If I could do college again, I would.” 

Comp Sci in Demand

Barnard’s computer science program launched only in January 2019, but the burgeoning offering — which brought the major on-campus for the first time — is firing on all cylinders. It’s one of the College’s most popular majors, graduating more than 30 students in 2020 and on track to see an even higher number graduate in 2021.

Much of that rapid scaling is thanks to Rebecca Wright, the program director and Druckenmiller Professor of Computer Science. After adding a second full-time faculty member and a couple of faculty fellows, she is pushing to integrate the discipline more broadly on the campus. That includes courses, like one on privacy, that are geared toward both computer science majors and non-CS majors: The final project can be technical, such as coding-based, but it can also be theoretical, like a research paper. Completed projects have ranged from looking at surveillance in humanitarian protections to a deep dive into the Patriot Act. More coding-minded students have built programs that simplify privacy terms and conditions or dissect data breaches.

Students also have the opportunity to be Computing Fellows, who attach to specific courses to assist students and professors, lead computational projects, and teach workshops. For example, Wright says, embedding Computing Fellows in an intro-level neuroscience lecture allows the students in the class to learn about the power of computation tools to analyze data more efficiently.

“They’ll learn a little bit of coding if they’re not familiar,” Wright says of the students with access to Computing Fellows, who are based in the Vagelos Computational Science Center. “But it’s mostly to show them in a meaningful way, in a fun way, in an accessible way that computing is valuable and useful, and it’s something they could learn to do.”

The Computer Science Program has also launched a distinguished lecture series and holds talks and events — currently all online due to COVID-19 — open to alumnae and to the broader community. Recent topics included the future of social media and cybersecurity.

Additionally, Wright notes, in summer 2020, nine Barnard students were able to participate in mentored research projects that “gave our students the tools they need to envision and create a new and better normal as we move forward, rather than returning to the old normal.” That included projects on qualitative data analysis, internet usage during the COVID-19 pandemic, and building a data-sharing system. Despite the challenges posed by the all-remote learning environment, the students were able to successfully collaborate with each other and faculty. 

“For those students, we’ve really focused on developing community and providing academic support as well as the curricular offerings,” Wright says. “I think they very much appreciate having a center of activity on the Barnard campus.”

Latest IssueSpring 2021