Ada Lovelace Day: Sandra K. Johnson

There are two ways to answer the question, “Why are there so few famous women scientists and technologists?” One is to point out the obstacles women faced (and still face). For example, Lise Meitner, co-discoverer of nuclear fission, wasn’t allowed to go to graduate school, had to work for free for many years, and was blatantly excluded from the Nobel prize for discovering fission. This was absolutely typical treatment for women at the time – and for quite some time afterwards. Caltech didn’t admit women until 1970!

The second way to answer is to point out all the women who did and are doing important work in science in technology despite these obstacles, and not getting very much credit for it. On Ada Lovelace Day, we raise the profile of women in science and technology by blogging about less well-known women and including memorable stories and details, so that you’ll remember them the next time someone claims “There are no women in $FIELD.”

Dr. Sandra K. Johnson: Parallel processing expert and first African-American woman electrical engineering PhD in the U.S.

Dr. Sandra K. Johnson (also known as Sandra Johnson Baylor) got interested in electrical engineering through an invitation to go to a high school summer camp program at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge. At the time, she thought engineering was all about “driving a train” but she decided she’d go anyway and get out of town for the summer. She loved engineering camp and went back to Southern to get her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and ultimately went on to become the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the United States.

While working as a researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Lab, Dr. Johnson worked on the prototype of the SP2 processor for IBM’s “Deep Blue” chess machine, as well as a variety of topics in the extraordinarily difficult field of highly parallel computing, including memory and IO behavior of parallel programs, cache coherence protocols, scalable shared-memory systems, and the Vesta Parallel File System. (If you’re looking for her publications, many of her papers are published under the name S. J. Baylor.) She held a number of high-ranking positions at IBM, including Linux Performance Architect, and managing the Linux Performance team.

Ironically, Dr. Johnson is currently working as an IBM business development executive in the United Arab Emirates, a relatively progressive country next door to Saudi Arabia, where she is not allowed to drive, among other highly discriminatory laws against women.Often when people claim we have already achieved legal gender equality (in their own country, of course), they forget that science, technology, and business are global activities, and career advancement often depends on working in several different countries. [Correction: The original said women weren't allowed to drive in UAE, which was me confusing Saudi Arabia with UAE.]

Sandra Johnson’s books are representative of her career: She was editor in chief of Linux Performance Tuning, author of Inspirational Nuggets, which encourages people to reach their full potential, as well as co-author with her brother of Gregory: Life of a Lupus Warrior, about her brother’s fight with lupus (Sandra was subsequently diagnosed with a non-life threatening form of lupus). Dr. Johnson is a combination of intellectual powerhouse and kind mentor. She’s on her way to the top, and she wants to bring other women (and especially women of color) along with her.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Johnson at the Grace Hopper women in computing conference in 2010, and I was deeply impressed. She was not only intelligent and competent, but incredibly supportive of other women. Dr. Johnson on how to become an IEEE fellow (or get any other award): It’s not magic, you have to tell your friends and mentors, “I want to be an IEEE fellow,” and then get someone to take responsibility for bugging your friends to write letters to nominate you. Don’t feel bad about asking for recognition, that’s just how it works.

Sandra Johnson is also a public speaker, with booking information on her web site. I highly recommend her as a speaker. She’s clear, informative, and inspirational in a practical and realistic way. If you get a chance to see her speak, jump at it! Personally, I hope I get to meet Dr. Johnson again.

So, next time someone says there aren’t any women in electrical engineering or processor design, you can pipe up with, “Oh, I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Dr. Sandra Johnson! She did all kinds of work on parallel processors and cache coherency for highly parallel systems and, oh yeah, the Vespa parallel file system too. She even worked on the prototype for IBM’s Deep Blue! Did you know she was also the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the U.S.? Right now she’s working in the Middle East, can you believe that irony? If you ever get the chance to see her speak, take it!”

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

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One Response to Ada Lovelace Day: Sandra K. Johnson

  1. Gosh, I just received this link in my google reader and LOVED your blog!

    I’m a girl working in IT too, so I really know what you means ;)

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