Posted by Rob Knies

Susan Dumais

Among the many earthly domains attributed to the Greek goddess Athena are those of mathematics, inspiration, strength, skill, and wisdom—traits that, combined, begin to describe the career of Susan Dumais, named April 8 as the ninth recipient of the Athena Lecturer Award.

The honor, presented by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Council on Women in Computing (ACM-W), goes to woman researchers who have made fundamental contributions to computer science. Dumais, Microsoft distinguished scientist and deputy managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond, certainly qualifies.

The ACM press release announcing the Athena award states: “Dumais introduced novel algorithms that have made it easier for people to find, use, and make sense of information. Her research at the intersection of human-computer interaction and information retrieval has broad applications for understanding and improving searching and browsing from the Internet to the desktop.”

Opportunity to Reflect

Receiving such recognition gives recipients pause to reflect, and Dumais is no exception.

“This got me thinking about the importance of community and colleagues in research,” she says. “I’ve spent my entire professional career at two research labs, Bell Labs/Bellcore and Microsoft Research. I have worked with amazing colleagues at both places, and at Microsoft, I have had the opportunity to shape new search capabilities in Bing, SharePoint, and Windows that are used daily by millions of people. It doesn’t get much better than that!”

To be considered for the Athena award, you must be nominated by one of the ACM’s Special Interest Groups (SIGs). It therefore is a tribute in itself that Dumais was nominated by two, SIGCHI, which focuses on human-computer interaction, and SIGIR, which pertains to information retrieval. That double nomination was not mere happenstance.

“Since my undergraduate days [at Bates College] as a mathematics and psychology double major, I have tried to take a broad, interdisciplinary perspective on problems,” Dumais says. “Much of my research has been focused on developing algorithms and interfaces to improve how people create, retrieve, and make sense of information. Developing great information technologies depends on both effective and efficient systems—and on a deep understanding of information seekers and their context of use.

Interdisciplinary Importance

“I believe that an interdisciplinary perspective is increasingly important as search becomes the key entry point for an ever-increasing range of information, services, and communications. I have published frequently at both SIGCHI and SIGIR conferences and am especially pleased that the two SIGs that I consider intellectual homes nominated me for this award.”

Dumais, who hopes to deliver her Athena Lecture during a SIGCHI or SIGIR conference in the coming year, has enjoyed a career that has been influential and recognized as such. An author of more than 200 articles on information science, human-computer interaction, and cognitive science, she is an ACM Fellow, has been elected to the CHI Academy and the National Academy of Engineering, and, in 2009, received the SIGIR Gerard Salton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

But don’t get the idea that she’s done yet. Far from it.

“My current research is focused on three challenges,” Dumais says, ”modeling context—location time, interaction history, current task—to improve information retrieval; representing how information and interaction changes over time and developing time-aware algorithms and interfaces; and exploring new, gaze-enhanced interaction techniques.”

Good Company

As she pursues new horizons, however, she takes particular pleasure in joining the esteemed ranks of Athena Lecturer Award winners.

“I am tremendously honored to be considered in the same category as the eight previous recipients, who have shaped the field of computer science in many different ways,” Dumais says. “I have worked closely with two of the previous recipients, Karen Spärck-Jones and Judy Olson, making this an even more humbling award for me.”

The ACM-W, which advocates internationally for the full engagement of women in all aspects of the computing field, describes the Athena Lecturer Award thusly: “Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom; with her wisdom and sense of purpose, and her willingness to enter the fray, Athena epitomizes the strength, determination, and intelligence of the ‘Athena Lecturers.’”

Dumais intends to live up to those ideals.

“The Athena award recognizes and celebrates women in computer science,” she says. “I hope my research contributions and lecture will convey some of these characteristics to the next generation of researchers, especially women.”