KARACHI: Does your work have an impact on society? That was the question asked and answered by Maria Klawe, one of the world’s leading computer scientists at a lecture at the Habib University on Tuesday as part of their Yohsin lecture series.
The title of her talk was ‘The importance of a broad education: The story of building an innovative university and impacting society’, and Dr Klawe — the 5th president of Harvey Mudd College — spoke at length about her journey to different parts of the world, including Pakistan, that inspired her. Her first visit to Pakistan, she recalled, was in the fall of 1971 when she travelled from Kabul to Lahore, and then across the border to India.
“Why does the impact of your work on society matter?” she said.
“It will not only help make better career choices but help us come up with better solutions to the world’s problems. If we want to address these problems, we need to have all of our people, whether they are scientists, engineers, economists or politicians, thinking about the impact of their work on society,” she said.
This in turn, Dr Klawe explained, “allows us to be better human beings and avoid some of the disasters like climate change, wars, and nuclear weapons.”
Dr Klawe has left an indelible mark on whichever area of study she worked in, be it mathematics or computer science. In 2014 she was 17th on Fortune’s List of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.
It was, however, her presidency at Harvey Mudd College in California which allowed her to shape the lives of many others. The institution was founded in 1955 as a liberal arts college of science and engineering, which Dr Klawe said could be for most an oxymoron.
“The thing we take seriously as a liberal arts college is that we believe that our students need significant depth of understanding in humanity, social sciences and arts, as well as across the areas of science and engineering.”
Interdisciplinary learning, coupled with experiential hands-on learning, is also practised at Harvey Mudd, she said, which has allowed it to foster undergraduate students not just so that they can learn knowledge, but also so that they can become better humans.
“The establishment of the college was motivated by the development of atomic weapons during World War II which the founding faculty were critical of. Our goal very explicitly was to educate scientists, engineers and mathematicians who would be leaders of their field and also understand the impact of their work on society,” she said.
Dr Klawe also shared details of how the Harvey Mudd College has progressed and at present has a 50 per cent enrolment of female students, one of the most racially diverse student bodies, and has a highly representative faculty too with almost half of them women.
During her visit, Dr Klawe also closely interacted with students and faculty members of the university.
An interesting dynamics introduced to the lecture was in the form of several water colour paintings that Dr Klawe had painted over the space of her career. Some self-portraits that charted her journey to reassemble herself both professionally and personally, to others created on the insistence of her daughter, the paintings reiterated her message that a broad-based education puts a great responsibility on the individual to positively impact society at large, which must not be ignored.
Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2018