We met with Dame Wendy Hall to discuss STEM, hypermedia, the influence of female professors in technical fields, and much more. Enjoy!
Pioneer in computer science and hypermedia, Dame Wendy Hall talks with student Karina Macosko about how she became one of the most influential computer scientists. She shows how her position as the first female professor of engineering at Southampton serves as an inspiration for students entering into STEM. Dr. Hall’s work in hypermedia was not a traditional path for the newly emerging field of computer science but it eventually led to what we know today as the internet and the World Wide Web. Learn more about her hypermedia research project and much more here!
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Dame Wendy, who is in computer science, but you actually started in a different field…
…so could you kind of give us your background and kind of show us how you got into computer science and how you got into the original field you’re in.
Wendy: Okay, so I’m of an age and when I was at school, there were no computers and there was no computer science, and I actually wanted to do medicine, but my head mistress wouldn’t let me do medicine, she said it wasn’t a career for women, this is was 1969.
So I was very, very... I was very, naturally good at Math, and she encouraged me to read Math in University, and I went to Southampton University on the south coast of UK, because it was a good place, a good math degree and only an hour from London where I lived, my parents lived.
And anyway, to cut the long story, so I really enjoyed both my math degree and then I went on to do a pure math PhD in algebraic topology, and I loved it, but there weren’t any jobs... There were not many jobs for pure mathematicians, and I wanted to stay in higher education.
So I got a job teaching master engineers, but actually it didn’t really excite me, and this is into the ’80s by now, when the personal computers were coming out, the very first ones, and I got interested in what they could do because I’d done computing at university and not enjoyed it very much, it was all punch card and paper tape and rather boring, I thought.
But once I saw the personal computer come out with the graphics, and then you we could put pictures on them, and we can put sound on them and the... And I got interested in how computers could be used to... Put in education really to help people find information, and I began to see the future a bit in terms of where this was gonna go. And I ended up going back to Southampton University as a lecturer in computer science. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Karina: Wow, that is incredible.
And did you notice that most of the people you worked with who were just on in the computer science field came in as mathematicians, or did they kind of come from various fields?
Wendy: No, It was mainly, in those days, math and physics. Computer scientists came from math and physics. Even electronics you see was a very embryonic subject in those days, and many electronics departments came from physics departments and computer sciences, computer science tend to come from math departments in those days, there were no degrees in computer science in the ’80s... Really, just beginning, we started our first one in Southampton in the ’80s.
Karina: Wow, and you were the first female professor in your field, right, at Southampton? Could you kind of tell us...
Wendy: Well, I was more than that actually. I was the first female professor of engineering at Southampton. You might not... Now I know there’s a Southampton in the US, you might not have heard of the university of Southampton because we’re not... We’re not Oxford, Cambridge or Imperial, but we’re a very, very good university, we’re in the Russell group in the UK and very research led, and very science and engineering...
We’re one of the top engineering schools in the UK. And I was the first... In 1994, I became the first female professor of engineering at Southampton and there wasn’t another one for another 10 years. There were very few and far between.
Karina: Wow, well, as somebody who is a woman who’s about to enter into, hopefully science or math fields, can you kind of tell us what that was like and... Well, that’s just so... For somebody my age, that’s kind of hard to imagine because you see so many female professors now, but... Yeah.
Wendy: Well, it was quite intimidating, I have to say, and it stilled me for things that came later. I’ve spent so much time being the only woman at meetings as I worked my way up the ladder, and I remember when I was... See, not only was I a woman, but I was also doing something that wasn’t traditionally computer science.
I got involved with the personal computers in the ’80s, we got... We now call multimedia, putting video and pictures and sound onto computers, and in those days there was nothing digital... So you had to write drivers to display those and then to interact with them, and from analog video and analog tape, sound tapes.
And I got into this thing called hypermedia as well, which is the world wide web is a hypermedia system where you use a computer to help you link between different pieces of information, that’s the concept. And I got very excited about it, but in those days, that sort of thing was science fiction, because it was so hard to put these things together, and it wasn’t traditional computer science, it wasn’t programming languages, compilers, operating systems.
I got told in public by one of the professors at Southhampton, that there was no future for me, either at Southampton or in computer science if I didn’t knuckle down and do some proper computer science.
I wasn't just fighting the fact that I was one of the few women around… I was pioneering a new idea…” – Dame Wendy Hall, PhD
So I wasn’t just fighting the fact that I was one of the few women around, I was also... What I was... I was pioneering a new idea, and luckily the head of department, who was a man, Professor Baron, became a mentor of mine, and he supported it, he could see that what I was doing was important for the future, and so he backed me.
If it hadn’t been for that, I could well have dropped out of computer science. And then he backed me and I gradually found... I had a wonderful sabbatical at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
I got a lot of confidence there, and because other people there were doing this multi-media thing, and I met lots of people at the time that were doing... And anyway, then I went, I was able... That gave me confidence to carry on with that work, and then... I’ve worked my way up, hard work. Builds a lab team of people. We were building our own hypermedia system called Microcosm, and I got started to write the papers and yeah, I got the promotion to a full professor, as you would call it in the US in ’94, and the only one in the engineering faculty.
Wendy: And It was an awe. It was quite hard going into meetings, they used to go quiet when I went into the meeting. They sort of didn’t know what to talk about when a woman came into the room. I thought, What do you talk about when I’m not here?
Karina: Well, that is incredible. So you were essentially a trailblazer for a trail that wasn’t even there yet in this field of hypermedia, that is so inspiring for me, and I hope a lot of the other people who watch this…
and you were talking about your hypermedia research project that was before the World Wide Web wasn’t it?
Wendy: It was about the same time. So I was developing Microcosm in... We started in ’88. We had our first system running at the end of ’89, which is exactly the time that Tim Berners-Lee who I got to know very well, was developing his first ideas for the World Wide Web. And he put the...
We met at a hypertext conference in the 1990 in Paris. And it was a... We had a demo, we had a paper about Microcosm there, and he was talking about what became the World Wide Web, and he put the first website up that Christmas. So from then on, I worked with him a lot. So we were working...
There were a lot of hypermedia systems around then, and the Web became the dominant one largely because... I’d like to say Microcosm was a better system than the web and it was more sophisticated, but we run it on a Windows PC with proprietary sort of protocols whereas Tim’s vision was, look at this Internet, let’s build the web on top of the internet with open, universal, free for anyone to use standards in a distributed way.
And that’s what eventually led to the World Wide Web becoming the dominant system, because it enabled everybody to use it and it gave it a way to scale.
But yeah, it’s an exciting time. It was the beginning of what we call the internet these days, because really the internet has been there since the ’60s, ’70s. Of course, as an internet of computers, but what the layer of the World Wide Web gave people access to the internet. So it’s all become called... We called to talk about access to the internet today, but of course we access it through the world wide web.
Karina: I could hear you talk about this for a very long time, but we like to keep these interviews a little bit shorter…
So is there any advice that you have for women going into STEM or just people in general as they’re starting on their careers?
Wendy: Well, I would say that... See, it’s very important. People say, Why do you need to worry about how many women are involved in STEM, and in particular, how many... Why do you need to worry about women in computing? Well, we are 50% of the planet. So these systems and these artifacts are being designed by a small subset of the people on the planet and for everybody. And it’s so important that we have diversity of workforce in this area, so that these things, these are designed, we can’t use them with one hand, the guys can. There’s a big difference.
…so we need diversity at the workforce at every level, every part of the industry.” – Dame Wendy Hall, PhD
It’s so important that we are involved in every aspect of the industry, but also in the design and development, so we need diversity at the workforce at every level, every part of the industry.
You don’t have to have a computer science degree to be interested in computing. We want some people like yourself, hopefully to go into this area and understand the science, be like me, because it opens doors. The careers are just fabulous.
But some people don’t have an affinity for that, and that doesn’t mean you can’t work, be very powerful in the industry in different ways, but it’s just diversity across the board, really, we need to encourage and get people to realize.
Let me... I want to just... I know we’re short on time, but let me just say something about, we all live through this COVID pandemic, and this time last year, the world moved onto the internet for everything, and the internet kept running, it didn’t fall over.
It was so resilient, and that’s a huge testament to the pioneers of the Internet, who designed it in a way that, we’ve only got 50% of the planet actually with the access to the internet at the moment. But almost that entire half a planet went on to the internet this time last year to do everything, and it stood that test, and I think that’s amazing. And to be part of that world that allows us to do this to sort all sorts of problems out for the world is just so exciting.
Karina: Wow, that is incredible, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, it was really interesting hearing all you had to say and all about your career within computer science, so thank you so much.
Wendy: So Karina, go out there and be a trailblazer, yeah?
Karina: Okay, I will.