News

Harvard Law School Makes Online Zero-L Course Free for All U.S. Law Schools Due to Coronavirus

News

For Kennedy School Fellows, Epstein-Linked Donors Present a Moral Dilemma

News

Tenants Grapple with High Rents and Local Turnover at Asana-Owned Properties

News

In April, Theft Surged as Cambridge Residents Stayed at Home

News

The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Seltzer: Making An Impact in C.S.

News Feature

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

This afternoon, most Harvard students will log into the personal computers in their dorm rooms at least once to check their e-mail, surf the Web or work on a term paper.

No one ever checks, though, to see if the students are actually familiar with using computers. But 15 years ago, when Margo I. Seltzer '83 was an undergraduate concentrating in applied mathematics, first-years had to be computer literate in order to pass the Quantitative Reasoning Requirement (QRR).

The QRR, Seltzer recalls, used to have a computer component. All first-years were required to log into the system, write a program in BASIC, get the output and print it out.

In her senior year, Seltzer, who is now assistant professor of computer science, served as the head teaching fellow for the program, administering the test and teaching the short preparatory courses. But after she graduated, the College abolished that requirement.

Sitting in an office dominated by two large computers at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, where she is a fellow this year, Seltzer remembers questioning that decision when President Neil L. Rudenstine called to offer her a teaching position here in 1992.

"What do I have to talk about with Neil?," Seltzer says she asked herself. "So I figured, 'Well, what's this I hear about your doing away with the QRR computer requirement?' I said I was somewhat disappointed because it seems computers are becoming more important not less, and here you are doing away with this requirement."

This is quintessential Seltzer: technological (it took 10 e-mails and no phone calls to set up an interview with her), articulate and proactive. One of two women professors in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences and instructor of the popular Computer Science 50 course, Seltzer--in her own words--"likes to have an impact."

College Years

She wasn't always sure she could. Like many Harvard first-years, she was intimidated by the University early on.

"I vividly remember arriving for freshman year, and my roommate seemed to have more in common with my mother than with me," Seltzer says. "She mentioned she had seven A.P.s (Advanced Placement scores), and I said, 'What's an A.P.?'"

Seltzer first came to Harvard in 1979 from a small town in upstate New York which she describes as having "more cows than people." No one in her high school had ever gone to Harvard.

"I had always been the best, but I had always been the best in a very small pond," Seltzer says of her high school days. "So there was this wariness or unease about coming to Harvard.... I really didn't know how this was going to play out."

Ultimately, Seltzer found her place at Harvard: playing trumpet in the band, programming for her computer science courses in the basement of the Science Center, giving tours for The Crimson Key Society and later serving as a teaching fellow in computer classes.

"I have known Margo Seltzer since she was an undergraduate. Already then she was known as a great teacher, only then it was of QRR classes," says McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis '68, who is also dean of the College.

In the early '80s, Harvard did not have a computer science concentration so Seltzer instead majored in applied mathematics which meant, according to her, more math and less computer science than computer science concentrators have today. Still Seltzer had the all-nighters--just as students do today--the night before her weekly problem sets were due.

"My week back then had six days: Monday, Twensday, Thursday, Friday..:," Seltzer says.

By the end of her first year, Seltzer says she realized that even at Harvard she could make a difference.

"Freshman year was this period of discovery that even in this very big pond one can have impact," Seltzer says. "If one is good at things at Harvard one can have impact...being a leader at Harvard, getting people to follow you [and] helping people to learn."

Returning to Harvard

After graduation, Seltzer left Harvard and joined a young start-up company with a Harvard professor who had just been denied tenure. During her first four years out of college, she worked in three separate computer start-up companies.

Seltzer describes herself as "a systems person," meaning she designs the layer of software between the computer hardware and user applications. Seltzer is best known for her work on file systems which must efficiently transfer data between applications and a storage medium like a hard disk.

By 1986, Seltzer says, she was unhappy with her job and her GRE scores were about to expire.

One day that year, while wandering through Harvard Square, she ran into a former student who had been in one of her sections when she was an undergraduate teaching fellow. The conversation brought Seltzer back to teaching.

"It was actually a moment of revelation," Seltzer says. "It was a wonderful conversation. It brought back the thrill of teaching that I really enjoyed."

So she decided to apply to graduate school, and in 1988 Seltzer enrolled at Berkeley.

Four years later, on April Fools Day, the Dean of the Division of Engineering Applied Sciences Paul C. Martin offered Seltzer a job, though Seltzer says jokingly that she had never applied for the position.

"I had applied retroactively for the position without even knowing it,"

But Harvard had been courting Seltzer for some time.

While working on her Ph.D. in 1991, Seltzer was asked to give a recruiting talk at Harvard. At the time Harvard did not have any job openings, but Lewis set up appointments for Seltzer with several of the computer science faculty members.

A junior faculty position opened up a few weeks later when McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Sciences H.T. Kung decided to come to Harvard, and Harvard decided to have Seltzer apply for the job.

"I got this charming little note from [Lewis] with the job announcement with the tag-line that said, 'I am so glad to see you applied,'" Seltzer says. "They had all my materials from when I came up and gave this talk."

Lewis says that Seltzer's experience in industry made her an ideal candidate for the University.

"She had tremendous industrial experience in the software business before going to graduate school, so she understands the engineering side of the field extremely well, a great advantage for people working in this area," Lewis says.

"We all worked very hard to recruit [Seltzer] to Harvard--as did many other major universities and industrial laboratories and are delighted that we succeeded," Martin says. "We wish she were clonable."

Of course, Seltzer still had to decide where she wanted to go to begin her teaching career. It came down to a choice between Harvard and MIT, a decision similar to the one she faced as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. Again it was Seltzer's desire to have impact that brought her back to Harvard.

"Harvard was just starting to build up its systems area with the C.S. department and again it was this potential to really have impact," Seltzer says. "It's the small pond syndrome. If I had gone to MIT and been fabulously successful, I fundamentally would not have changed MIT."

A Woman in the Sciences

Seltzer is particularly unusual in her field because she is a woman. Being a female faculty member and one of the two women faculty members in the applied sciences provides Seltzer with a unique perspective on the often controversial question of being a woman in academia.

"I actually think Harvard as a rule is a wonderful place for women to be," Seltzer says. "I've always been accepted for who I am and what I can do, independently of my gender."

But Seltzer admits that she is sometimes regarded as a token.

"The Development Office loves me," Seltzer says. "I'm a girl. I did the sciences. I was an undergraduate here and now I am a faculty member here. They love dragging me out in front of alumni."

The Development Office taped Seltzer for a cassette they made two years ago for the campaign and used her in multimedia presentation on Harvard.

Seltzer says that in the nearly two decades since she entered the College, one of the biggest changes has been the increased prominence of women throughout the University. For instance, Seltzer herself was the first female conductor of the band, and, during her undergraduate years, the band also had its first female manager.

But the lack of female graduate students and faculty members is a problem that will still take time to solve, Seltzer says.

"It's a clear pipelining problems. You cannot hire women faculty unless you get women applicants," Seltzer says. "And trying to get women applicants in computer science for graduate school: Good luck!"

Seltzer has worked in admissions at both Harvard and Berkeley to help alleviate this problem. Seltzer also helps her women advisees to feel comfortable in computer science.

"Sometimes it's hard to be female in computer science," Lori J. Park '96 says. "I didn't take C.S. 50 so I only met [Seltzer] when I was applying to be a C.S. 50 [teaching fellow]. I felt pretty frustrated with C.S. at the time. I told this to [Seltzer], and she took time to explain things to me [and] have me attend her research group."

Teaching

Seltzer came back to Harvard and, more generally, to academia to teach. When asked what it's like to stand up in front of a group of Harvard students and teach them about computing, Seltzer--dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt--rocks back in her computer chair and howls: "It is a trip. It is a real trip."

She remembers the day she realized her students likely view her as she saw her own professors.

"I was standing in front of my first class and I was teaching C.S. 161 and it was just this really weird mind-warp thinking about how I used to view my professors when I was a student," Seltzer says. "Then it hit me, 'My God, these people take me seriously.'"

Seltzer lets her experience at Harvard as an undergraduate inform her teaching today, particularly with grading. Grades have rapidly inflated since she was here in the early '80s, Seltzer says.

"When I was a student here, a B+ was a good grade. Now I get people in my office in tears over B+'s," Seltzer says. I have a really hard time with that because my value system is based on when I was here. You can tell me things have changed since 1979 but somehow I don't think they should have."

Despite the tough grades, students enjoy Seltzer's teaching.

"Seltzer was a wonderful professor," says Adam L. Jacobs '99 who took C.S. 50 from her last year.

"She demanded a lot of audience participation in lecture.... It was a pretty big class--met in one of the big [Science Center] lecture halls, had several hundred students," Jacobs says. "But once I met her [in office hours], introduced myself to her that one time...[and] thereafter she always remembered my name. When she called on me in lecture she would call me by my name."

Students also appreciate Seltzer's candidness and her availability.

"[Seltzer] doesn't buffer you from the truth. Basically, if you're slacking off, she'll tell you. If you're doing a great job, she'll tell you," Park says.

"Though the course material is generally very difficult, she regularly takes time out to meet with students who need extra help," says Sam A. Yagan '99 who also took C.S. 50 with Seltzer. "Last year I was one of those students who struggled with C.S. 50. As I look back through my saved messages, I count more than 30 e-mail messages from her."

Though Seltzer loves to teach, research and publishing are a necessity to getting tenure.

"Unfortunately in the academic world you are measured by how many papers you write," Seltzer says. "The publish or perish phenomenon is very real."

As a computer scientist, Seltzer writes software (most of which is given away for free on the World Wide Web) and writes papers about the lessons learned from writing the software.

Seltzer usually teaches Computer Science 50: "Introduction to Computer Science" during the fall semester, but this year she is on leave at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute doing research and programming. Last year she received the Radcliffe Junior Faculty Fellowship, which is designed to increase the number of women faculty tenures by giving one woman junior faculty member a year teaching relief to do research.

Seltzer work at the Bunting is a continuation of her research at Harvard which currently is building and evaluating an operating system (hopefully to be finished soon) that she designed. She has also done research on the growth of the Web, trying to quantify its staggering sprouting and to design strategies to keep pace with its growth.

But Seltzer says that Harvard students are the University's biggest draw.

"The greatest disappointment in not getting tenure would be not having the contact on a regular basis with the students," Seltzer says. "Harvard does have this one little carrot--the student. They're what makes this ridiculous long hour, low paying job a lot of fun."Crimson File Photo

College Years

She wasn't always sure she could. Like many Harvard first-years, she was intimidated by the University early on.

"I vividly remember arriving for freshman year, and my roommate seemed to have more in common with my mother than with me," Seltzer says. "She mentioned she had seven A.P.s (Advanced Placement scores), and I said, 'What's an A.P.?'"

Seltzer first came to Harvard in 1979 from a small town in upstate New York which she describes as having "more cows than people." No one in her high school had ever gone to Harvard.

"I had always been the best, but I had always been the best in a very small pond," Seltzer says of her high school days. "So there was this wariness or unease about coming to Harvard.... I really didn't know how this was going to play out."

Ultimately, Seltzer found her place at Harvard: playing trumpet in the band, programming for her computer science courses in the basement of the Science Center, giving tours for The Crimson Key Society and later serving as a teaching fellow in computer classes.

"I have known Margo Seltzer since she was an undergraduate. Already then she was known as a great teacher, only then it was of QRR classes," says McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis '68, who is also dean of the College.

In the early '80s, Harvard did not have a computer science concentration so Seltzer instead majored in applied mathematics which meant, according to her, more math and less computer science than computer science concentrators have today. Still Seltzer had the all-nighters--just as students do today--the night before her weekly problem sets were due.

"My week back then had six days: Monday, Twensday, Thursday, Friday..:," Seltzer says.

By the end of her first year, Seltzer says she realized that even at Harvard she could make a difference.

"Freshman year was this period of discovery that even in this very big pond one can have impact," Seltzer says. "If one is good at things at Harvard one can have impact...being a leader at Harvard, getting people to follow you [and] helping people to learn."

Returning to Harvard

After graduation, Seltzer left Harvard and joined a young start-up company with a Harvard professor who had just been denied tenure. During her first four years out of college, she worked in three separate computer start-up companies.

Seltzer describes herself as "a systems person," meaning she designs the layer of software between the computer hardware and user applications. Seltzer is best known for her work on file systems which must efficiently transfer data between applications and a storage medium like a hard disk.

By 1986, Seltzer says, she was unhappy with her job and her GRE scores were about to expire.

One day that year, while wandering through Harvard Square, she ran into a former student who had been in one of her sections when she was an undergraduate teaching fellow. The conversation brought Seltzer back to teaching.

"It was actually a moment of revelation," Seltzer says. "It was a wonderful conversation. It brought back the thrill of teaching that I really enjoyed."

So she decided to apply to graduate school, and in 1988 Seltzer enrolled at Berkeley.

Four years later, on April Fools Day, the Dean of the Division of Engineering Applied Sciences Paul C. Martin offered Seltzer a job, though Seltzer says jokingly that she had never applied for the position.

"I had applied retroactively for the position without even knowing it,"

But Harvard had been courting Seltzer for some time.

While working on her Ph.D. in 1991, Seltzer was asked to give a recruiting talk at Harvard. At the time Harvard did not have any job openings, but Lewis set up appointments for Seltzer with several of the computer science faculty members.

A junior faculty position opened up a few weeks later when McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Sciences H.T. Kung decided to come to Harvard, and Harvard decided to have Seltzer apply for the job.

"I got this charming little note from [Lewis] with the job announcement with the tag-line that said, 'I am so glad to see you applied,'" Seltzer says. "They had all my materials from when I came up and gave this talk."

Lewis says that Seltzer's experience in industry made her an ideal candidate for the University.

"She had tremendous industrial experience in the software business before going to graduate school, so she understands the engineering side of the field extremely well, a great advantage for people working in this area," Lewis says.

"We all worked very hard to recruit [Seltzer] to Harvard--as did many other major universities and industrial laboratories and are delighted that we succeeded," Martin says. "We wish she were clonable."

Of course, Seltzer still had to decide where she wanted to go to begin her teaching career. It came down to a choice between Harvard and MIT, a decision similar to the one she faced as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. Again it was Seltzer's desire to have impact that brought her back to Harvard.

"Harvard was just starting to build up its systems area with the C.S. department and again it was this potential to really have impact," Seltzer says. "It's the small pond syndrome. If I had gone to MIT and been fabulously successful, I fundamentally would not have changed MIT."

A Woman in the Sciences

Seltzer is particularly unusual in her field because she is a woman. Being a female faculty member and one of the two women faculty members in the applied sciences provides Seltzer with a unique perspective on the often controversial question of being a woman in academia.

"I actually think Harvard as a rule is a wonderful place for women to be," Seltzer says. "I've always been accepted for who I am and what I can do, independently of my gender."

But Seltzer admits that she is sometimes regarded as a token.

"The Development Office loves me," Seltzer says. "I'm a girl. I did the sciences. I was an undergraduate here and now I am a faculty member here. They love dragging me out in front of alumni."

The Development Office taped Seltzer for a cassette they made two years ago for the campaign and used her in multimedia presentation on Harvard.

Seltzer says that in the nearly two decades since she entered the College, one of the biggest changes has been the increased prominence of women throughout the University. For instance, Seltzer herself was the first female conductor of the band, and, during her undergraduate years, the band also had its first female manager.

But the lack of female graduate students and faculty members is a problem that will still take time to solve, Seltzer says.

"It's a clear pipelining problems. You cannot hire women faculty unless you get women applicants," Seltzer says. "And trying to get women applicants in computer science for graduate school: Good luck!"

Seltzer has worked in admissions at both Harvard and Berkeley to help alleviate this problem. Seltzer also helps her women advisees to feel comfortable in computer science.

"Sometimes it's hard to be female in computer science," Lori J. Park '96 says. "I didn't take C.S. 50 so I only met [Seltzer] when I was applying to be a C.S. 50 [teaching fellow]. I felt pretty frustrated with C.S. at the time. I told this to [Seltzer], and she took time to explain things to me [and] have me attend her research group."

Teaching

Seltzer came back to Harvard and, more generally, to academia to teach. When asked what it's like to stand up in front of a group of Harvard students and teach them about computing, Seltzer--dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt--rocks back in her computer chair and howls: "It is a trip. It is a real trip."

She remembers the day she realized her students likely view her as she saw her own professors.

"I was standing in front of my first class and I was teaching C.S. 161 and it was just this really weird mind-warp thinking about how I used to view my professors when I was a student," Seltzer says. "Then it hit me, 'My God, these people take me seriously.'"

Seltzer lets her experience at Harvard as an undergraduate inform her teaching today, particularly with grading. Grades have rapidly inflated since she was here in the early '80s, Seltzer says.

"When I was a student here, a B+ was a good grade. Now I get people in my office in tears over B+'s," Seltzer says. I have a really hard time with that because my value system is based on when I was here. You can tell me things have changed since 1979 but somehow I don't think they should have."

Despite the tough grades, students enjoy Seltzer's teaching.

"Seltzer was a wonderful professor," says Adam L. Jacobs '99 who took C.S. 50 from her last year.

"She demanded a lot of audience participation in lecture.... It was a pretty big class--met in one of the big [Science Center] lecture halls, had several hundred students," Jacobs says. "But once I met her [in office hours], introduced myself to her that one time...[and] thereafter she always remembered my name. When she called on me in lecture she would call me by my name."

Students also appreciate Seltzer's candidness and her availability.

"[Seltzer] doesn't buffer you from the truth. Basically, if you're slacking off, she'll tell you. If you're doing a great job, she'll tell you," Park says.

"Though the course material is generally very difficult, she regularly takes time out to meet with students who need extra help," says Sam A. Yagan '99 who also took C.S. 50 with Seltzer. "Last year I was one of those students who struggled with C.S. 50. As I look back through my saved messages, I count more than 30 e-mail messages from her."

Though Seltzer loves to teach, research and publishing are a necessity to getting tenure.

"Unfortunately in the academic world you are measured by how many papers you write," Seltzer says. "The publish or perish phenomenon is very real."

As a computer scientist, Seltzer writes software (most of which is given away for free on the World Wide Web) and writes papers about the lessons learned from writing the software.

Seltzer usually teaches Computer Science 50: "Introduction to Computer Science" during the fall semester, but this year she is on leave at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute doing research and programming. Last year she received the Radcliffe Junior Faculty Fellowship, which is designed to increase the number of women faculty tenures by giving one woman junior faculty member a year teaching relief to do research.

Seltzer work at the Bunting is a continuation of her research at Harvard which currently is building and evaluating an operating system (hopefully to be finished soon) that she designed. She has also done research on the growth of the Web, trying to quantify its staggering sprouting and to design strategies to keep pace with its growth.

But Seltzer says that Harvard students are the University's biggest draw.

"The greatest disappointment in not getting tenure would be not having the contact on a regular basis with the students," Seltzer says. "Harvard does have this one little carrot--the student. They're what makes this ridiculous long hour, low paying job a lot of fun."Crimson File Photo

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags