Seltzer: Making An Impact in C.S.

News Feature

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.

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