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Oral-History:Fan Chung-Graham

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I took FORTRAN in my senior year. For the homework, in the old days, you had these punch cards. I wrote up my assignments usually very fast—and I heard later on that a lot of boys in the dorms tried to copy mine! [both laugh.]  
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Revision as of 19:18, 24 March 2014

Contents

About Fan Chung Graham

Fan Chung Graham grew up in Taiwan where she attended National Taiwan University in the 1960s. Earning her BA in Mathematics in 1970, she went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) where she earned her MA in Mathematics in 1972. In 1974, she received her PhD from UPenn. After graduating, Chung Graham worked in the Mathematical Foundations of Computing Department at Bell Labs, eventually becoming a research manager there. After working at Bell Labs, she went on to teach at several major universities including UPenn and University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego). She is currently a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and a Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego.

In this interview, she talks about growing up in Taiwan and reflects upon the education system as she attended the National University. Chung Graham also shares her experience at Bell Labs and talks about her research and management positions there. She also talks about her family life, on what it is like as a woman and mother in the field of higher education and mathematics, and shares her thoughts on the field of computing research.

About the Interview

FAN CHUNG GRAHAM: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 18 July 2002

Interview # 595 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.


Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Fan Chung Graham, an oral history conducted in 2002 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Fan Chung Graham
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 18 July 2002
PLACE: Fan Chung Graham's office at the UC San Diego

Growing up in Taiwan and Family Life

Abbate:

It’s July 18th, 2002, and I’m speaking with Fan Chung Graham. I always start at the very beginning, so if you could tell me where you were born and where did you grow up?

Graham:

I was born 1949 in Taiwan, and that’s where I grew up.

Abbate:

What did your parents do?

Graham:

My mother was a high school teacher and my father was an engineer. In fact, my father was the one who encouraged me to pursue science. At the time, there was no computer science. He said, “Math provides a good foundation so that you can easily switch to other science if you wish later on.” He is right.

Abbate:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

Graham:

Yes, one brother.

I was doing, at that time, pretty well in other subjects, too; but I think I always have had a special feeling for math.

Abbate:

So you enjoyed that from an early age?

Graham:

Yes.

Abbate:

Did your mother also encourage you to do the math and science?

Graham:

My mother was a high school teacher. She always had her career, and I think that’s a very positive kind of input.

Abbate:

You mean the example that she set?

Graham:

Yes. She really gave me this impression that you can be very happy having your own career.

Abbate:

And did your—I don’t remember if it was a brother or sister: did he or she also go into something technical?

Graham:

Yes: civil engineering.

Abbate:

What kind of schools were you going to?

Graham:

Way back in the old days?

Abbate:

Yes.

Graham:

When I was in middle or high school, it was an all-girls’ school. It was very conservative then; but you got a very good education. Later on, when I went to college, even in the first and second year of my college days the books we were using [in Taiwan] were quite a bit more advanced than those I see here. However, when I went to grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, I found out that the best way to learn is by using what you learn yourself.

Abbate:

You had gone to college in Taiwan?

Graham:

Yes, as an undergraduate in National Taiwan University.

Women and Math in Taiwan

Abbate:

And you were majoring in math at that time?

Graham:

Yes. It was an unusual year. There was one young Professor who came back from the U.S., and he decided to go out and recruit. That was not too long after Chen Ning Yang and Tsimg-Dao Lee won the Nobel Prize in physics. They were both born in China, but they were US citizens when they got the Nobel Prize in 1957. So all the top boys went into physics—but all the top girls from all the high schools where he recruited went into math. We had a very strong class in that sense: not only many women, but many very good women.

Abbate:

You had said that the top five students in math were all women? Something like that?

Graham:

Yes.

Abbate:

So there were a lot of women in the Math Department?

Graham:

I think my year had more than usual. And they have all been doing great now, too! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So you didn’t feel strange; it wasn’t like you were the only woman in class.

Graham:

No. In math, it helps a lot if you can have people to talk with. We enjoyed very much the technical discussions.

Abbate:

So you did college in Taiwan.

Graham:

Yes.

Abbate:

How did you end up at Penn for graduate school?

Graduate School at UPenn

Graham:

I applied to various places, and at U. Penn, there was a Professor Yang who was not my advisor but had always been very helpful; sort of an advisor in a different capacity. In grad school, you do need good guidance—at some critical point in your career. I tried to play a similar role later on, when I became a professor.

Abbate:

When you went to Penn, that was in computer science?

Graham:

It was in math. You see, I have been out for many years. When I was in college, most places did not yet have computer science department.

Abbate:

Did you go directly from college, or did you work first, before grad school?

Graham:

I went directly from college.

Abbate:

So when did you actually first use a computer?

Graham:

I took FORTRAN in my senior year. For the homework, in the old days, you had these punch cards. I wrote up my assignments usually very fast—and I heard later on that a lot of boys in the dorms tried to copy mine! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

So you had a knack for it; you just picked it up right away. Was it fun? Did you think, “Ah, this computer stuff can be fun”?

Graham:

Well, you know, doing FORTRAN is not quite computer science! [both laugh.] But it’s a game. It’s an interesting game, and mathematics helps.

Abbate:

What was your experience at Penn like?

Graham:

Well, I was there in grad school, and many years later I went back to teach at my alma mater. When I was a grad student, the faculty members were really good to me. I received excellent guidance, and after I moved on, they still kept track of how I was doing. Many years later, I was offered an excellent job: a full Professor with an endowed chair. About one month ago, Irwin Jacobs, who is the CEO of Qualcomm here in San Diego, told me that he was at Penn and had heard a speech given by President Judith Rodin, He heard that my name was mentioned in her speech. I looked up her commencement speech on the web, and sure enough, she talked about brainpower from all over the world and included several alumni as examples. I was just totally flattered that I was mentioned alongside with another person who got the Nobel Prize! I know that U. Penn has always been so wonderful to me, but I didn’t expect to be mentioned in such a capacity in a commencement speech.

Abbate:

So that was a very positive experience.

Graham:

Yes, it was quite wonderful.

Abbate:

Was it unusual to be a woman there? Did they have a lot in math?

Graham:

In my grad class, I think there were about a quarter women. Some of them were very helpful to the incoming students. I was lucky to have academic (woman) siblings who were very good to me.

Abbate:

So there was a kind of peer mentoring going on there?

Graham:

Yes. At twenty-five percent, it’s not bad. But you know the pipeline problem.

Abbate:

Right. [There is a relatively large number of women at the lower levels, but fewer and fewer as you move up the pipeline to the faculty and other senior positions.]

Graham:

I was studying with my advisor, Herb Wilf. He’s a wonderful teacher, and I learned a lot from him. It was very unusual. At that time, I planned to pursue either algebra or analysis—but Herb Wilf is in the kind of mathematics in between math and computer science.

Abbate:

When you say “in between math and computer science,” this was numerical analysis?

Graham:

Herb Wilf originally was from the numerical side, but at the time I met him, he’d already changed over to combinatorics and algorithms. He wrote many wonderful books in these areas. I really enjoyed working with him. He gave me wonderful problems; so I started walking into the area, not by taking courses, but by actually working on these problems. I discovered this whole new area that is so much fun: like playing puzzles, but at a somewhat different scale. For example, when you analyze the operations of data structures, you are playing a very well defined game, too. If you are playing with very huge data structures or networks like these Internet graphs, you have a lot of zeroes and ones. If you are going to purely deal with zeroes and ones, a huge amount of digits is not going to mean anything; it would be hard to find a diamond in the rough, or anything of that nature. So you have to take advantage of its relations, to help with your game. Otherwise, with all the possible combinations, no matter how fast the computer is running, it’s not going to have enough capacity to overcome the exponential blow-up.

Abbate:

What was your dissertation work on?

Graham:

Ramsey Theory, which is about finding order in chaos. If you’ve seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, in the movie they try to explain some mathematics that is a typical Ramsey problem. “In the sky, if you have a large number of stars, you are going to see all these patterns.” Ramsey Theory is about what patterns are unavoidable in a quantitative way. How large does it have to be so that there are certain patterns that can never be avoided? It is part of classical combinatorial mathematics.

Abbate:

That sounds fascinating!

So, you finished the dissertation, and you got the degree. Did you go straight to Bell Labs after that?

Working at Bell Labs

Graham:

Yes. In my last year of dissertation, I was very pregnant! [laughs.] That was a wonderful year for having a child, because I had a research fellowship and I only had to work on my dissertation so I could stay home if I wanted to. I was in no shape to interview for jobs—although I was relatively small for my first pregnancy. I got two offers, both without interviewing. One was very, very far away; they didn’t want to pay me to go to Hawaii to interview! [laughs.] And the other one was from Bell Labs, and they didn’t have to interview me, because I already had some joint paper resulting from collaborations one year before.

Abbate:

How did that happen?

Graham:

We have seminars in the university with outside visitors. I picked up the problem at a seminar and started a collaboration. It was a postdoc job, so they didn’t have to interview me.

Abbate:

I understand. But just to clarify: You had met someone at Bell Labs previously to write a joint paper with?

Graham:

Yes.

Abbate:

I guess Bell Labs isn’t very far from Penn. Was there a lot of back and forth, with people coming to seminars and things?

Graham:

There are always people coming through to give talks at these seminars.

Abbate:

And this was in Murray Hill? Where is Bell Labs?

Graham:

It’s in Murray Hill, New Jersey.

That’s how I got my first at a time when jobs were tough to get. The market goes up and down, and that was a down time then.

Abbate:

What year did you get your degree?

Graham:

'74.

Abbate:

‘74. Yes, that was kind of a recession.

Graham:

Yes.

Abbate:

Now, you’d obviously met your husband already, I guess, since you had a baby. Was he also . . . ?

Graham:

That was actually my first husband.

Abbate:

When had you met him?

Graham:

In college. At Penn, in the year of my dissertation, I had my first child. Three years later, I had my second when I was working at Bell Labs.

When I first went to the Labs, it was a fascinating experience. I saw name tags at the doors of the offices with so many well-known stars there. You got the feeling if you put your arms out in the corridor, you could catch some of these good problems! [laughs.] It was a wonderful experience. It was the Labs in its golden days with many very smart people. It’s different from a university, because there’s no boundary between different disciplines. When you try to solve problems, you use anything you can find. It was really quite a place!

Abbate:

What group were you working in?

Graham:

At that time, I was in the Mathematical Foundations of Computing department. We had a stellar group. At that time, Mike Garey was the Department Head; we had David Johnson; Bob Tarjan; Narender Karmarkar, Neil Sloane, Andrew Odlyzko, Ed Coffman … We had so many good people in that department! When I left because of the reorganization—having a new Lab with BellCore, after the divestiture—people were saying, “How can you leave that behind?” It was a wonderful department.

Abbate:

What were you working on?

Graham:

My work is in graph theory, algorithm analysis and communication networks. There were so many good problems around! These problems help push you to the right directions, instead of having to dream them up. A really good problem appears in many different places. That makes it a fundamental problem.

Abbate:

So, being in a place where there’s some application stimulates you to find the fundamental research questions?

Graham:

Yes. For example, in the early days I worked on switching networks. Setting up a communication network is a game about who’s going to talk to whom without being interrupted. How will you send the packets around? There are various game rules, and there are various gadgets: you could have, in the old days, those two-by-two switches; nowadays, the fancy optical ones. In the Web, there are routers and there are routing protocols. The basic fundamental problems are very similar; but the game rules are slightly different, because the gadgets are different.

Abbate:

Did you have any problem balancing work with raising a family, at that point?

Graham:

I had two kids pretty early on, and I didn’t have real problems, mainly because I think it is always good to ask for help when you need it and not try to overload yourself, which is no good for yourself or for your children. So I always try to get whatever help I can. At that time, we lived close to New York, so I was lucky to get very good help. Actually, I had [help] living in with us, for many years. If you can have good help at home, then you can enjoy your work without worrying.

Abbate:

Were they pretty flexible at the Lab?

Graham:

Yes, they were. In fact, my first year, I had a nontrivial commute. At that time, we lived seventy miles away in South Jersey, because my husband then had a job there. For various reasons, for one year I was commuting. So they said, “Take Wednesday off, work at home.” I had to drive quite substantially on the New Jersey Turnpike, and I enjoyed the morning drive—at that time; I don’t think I would do it again! [laughs.] It was always going like this: The first thing in the morning I had all these ideas, while I was driving; and then at the end of the day, you kill them all! [both laugh.] I actually have pleasant memories about it—and not too many accidents! [laughs.]

Abbate:

I actually used to drive from Philadelphia to New Brunswick for a year, which was a similar commute.

Graham:

It’s a long drive. The roads are not very good.

Abbate:

But you could think. You had an hour free to think.

Graham:

Yes. I don’t think I want to go back to those days of driving [laughs], but I sort of had a lot of fun.

Abbate:

Were there other women at Bell Labs? I don’t know how many women were at Bell Labs. Was it unusual? Were there a lot?

Graham:

I think there were a fair number. You see, at the Labs, there were people with all sorts of accents, domestic or foreign. You recruit people wherever the top people are. In those days, we could really attract the best people—we were very competitive, even against the best universities—and there were a lot of people from different backgrounds. I never felt I was in any way being treated differently or unfairly at all. In fact, I think maybe it was lucky in a way to go to a university much later, after I’d been through the Labs. You are sort of dodging the usual tenure track process, and all that pressure.

Abbate:

Interesting!

Graham:

Provided you keep your research up at the level that people still want you, and then move to the universities at the tenure rank—actually in my case at full Professor rank.

Abbate:

So, Penn hired you back as a tenured Professor.

Graham:

Yes. That was quite a few years later. In the community, through peer review people know what you’re doing.

Abbate:

That’s interesting. It sounds very diverse, certainly, at Bell Labs. So you think in a way it was easier to progress there than it might have been at a university?

Graham:

I think the first few years, it’s advantageous because you have more time for research. At that time, we had very good support for traveling.

Abbate:

And you don’t have to teach.

Graham:

You can go to conferences, and you can focus full force on research. I think that must be a quite a lift, at the beginning—although nowadays I think a lot of universities, when they recruit, make sure from the very beginning to give you a little more time to ease in. I encourage my Ph.D. students to take postdocs for the same reason: so you can see more than one place, and focus more sharply on research.

Abbate:

Why did you decide to go back to Penn?

Graham:

Well, I was at Bell Labs very happily, and then I was in management. It was the AT&T divestiture at that time, so I was persuaded to head up a new lab. I was in management for seven years altogether, which was long enough to want a switch to academia. I had a wonderful experience in management, because you can see a much broader area, and you learn a lot from that experience.

Abbate:

Was it hard to learn the management skills?

Graham:

There is a management component in research, because you often have to give talks to promote your work. The Labs is a very technical, research type of organization, so there’s a research component—although I would say, for some people who go into administration, it’s easy to give up research; but I managed to keep that up, always. I put that high on my priority list.

Abbate:

So you were doing both at that point.

Graham:

Yes. The management part is interesting, because you get a broad view and appreciate different areas. At that time, I was the highest-ranked woman executive at Bell Communications Research. But I came to realize it was not a career path I wanted to take.

Abbate:

Because the only way up is probably into management?

Graham:

Yes. You have to be too tough for your own good! [laughs.] You know: management means hire and fire. It toughens you up!

Abbate:

What position were you actually in?

Graham:

At that time I had several groups working for me, including Information Science, Operations Research, and Math.

Abbate:

Wow, that’s a lot. So you were a Director of Research or something?

Graham:

Certain long titles. But it was pretty clear that was not what I wanted to pursue. It was rewarding, though; I learned quite a bit of other things. So I found a way out. At that time, they were thinking about having some exceptional positions, called “Fellow”, to reward technical people. So I was one of the first fellows. Because I was the first, I was getting away doing a lot of things that were a little bit unusual. I got a sabbatical! So I went to Harvard. At that time, I could either go to a place with a lot of people doing similar work as I was doing—MIT would be such a place; I was also invited to go—but I decided to go to Harvard instead, and visited there for two years.

Abbate:

When was that?

Graham:

Let me see. Maybe ‘93.

But I was still doing useful things for the Labs. For example, I did a big report on reliable communication and computing after a serious problem with the signal system SS7. There was a telephone outage—Washington, DC and all over the places—and it was just because three bits were off! [laughs.] I pulled together people from the practical community and from the research community, to survey the state of the art from protocols, software, networking to foundations. So I wrote such a report, which was very fun to do.

Abbate:

Was H. T. Kung at Harvard at that point? He was doing networking research, but I don’t remember when.

Graham:

Yes, he was around, but I didn’t see him much. He was working with Northern Telecom, I think.

Abbate:

The rival to Bell Labs! [laughs.]

Graham:

Yes.

Working at Harvard

Abbate:

So you were in the Math Department then, or where?

Graham:

Math. At Harvard, the Math Department is a very pure place! [laughs.] At that time it was actually a little bit better, because Persi Diaconis is somewhat in statistics, and Dave Mumford was in computer vision, both still in the [Math] Department. Later on they left.

I visited there for two years, and I perhaps have set the record of having collaboration with the most number of their senior faculty. I have two papers with Persi Diaconis, one with Dave Mumford, and also started a series of works using spectral geometry to do spectral graph theory. I wrote a book on spectral graph theory. In computer vision, there are basically two kinds of approaches, and one is using spectral graph theory by the Berkeley group. Our department here at UCSD recruited one young, bright guy from the Berkeley Computer Vision Group. From him, I learned for the first time that they actually use the work in my book.

We started to do some joint work, and he segmented—you see, in computer vision, you have to segment all these pictures, so I said, “Why not segment my paintings?” [laughs.] I can show you later on some very nice pictures! We have a project of evaluating the paintings. If I really say “evaluating a painting,” that’s too broad a goal, which is hardly attainable; so we have a much simpler goal. You see, when you do water colors, it is very conceptual. You have to partition the whole picture into many different layers, and do them in the right order. I always use my eyes to judge what you should do. It would be good if the computer could help you! [laughs.] So we sort of have a pet project on the side.

Abbate:

That’s segmenting in the third dimension, rather than pixelating it?

Graham:

Yes. When you do water colors, you do one wash at a time. If you’re impatient and do not let it dry out, you start to fuss with it. Then you’ll create something called “mud”! [both laugh.] So you have to visualize how it will come out. But of course, the fun of the whole thing is that it’s unpredictable!

Abbate:

It sounds like there are parallels between water colors and doing computer research, in a way.

Graham:

Yes—especially in vision. You want to identify, “Who belongs to what?” You want to segment: “This region is one region, even though the pattern goes the other way.” So you want to make sure that computationally, it could be nearly as smart as our eyes can see.

From Harvard to UPenn

Abbate:

Now, did you go straight from Harvard to Penn?

Graham:

Yes. They offered me a very good position, and I went there. I went to Math, but I also had an appointment with Computer Science.

Abbate:

At Penn?

Graham:

Yes. I enjoy joint appointments tremendously. You work with people on both sides. Probably because at the Labs, we worked with people from all directions!

Abbate:

Right, right. I think that can be less true in a university.

Graham:

Yes, unfortunately. Actually, I don’t recommend that to junior faculty. I think that could be tough, because you have to go through all sorts of evaluations, and people tend to be more critical if you’re spread too far away. There is a danger, unfortunately. But I think nowadays, given all the challenging problems we are facing, we need to use all tools and knowledge from whatever fields we can master: to throw those darts on! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did you know Ruzena Bajcsy?

Graham:

Oh, yes! Very well.

Abbate:

I talked to her last week.

Graham:

Yes, she was at Penn for a long time.

Abbate:

How long were you at Penn?

Graham:

I was there for four years. They were so good to me, so it was very hard to leave, but my husband always wanted to go back to California.

Abbate:

Now, was this the same . . . ?

Graham:

No, that’s my current husband.

Abbate:

How did you meet him?

Graham:

Well, he gave a seminar, when I was at Penn.

Abbate:

Oh, this was still when you were at Penn.

Graham:

Yes. Then we both worked at Bell Labs.

Abbate:

So he traveled with you to Boston?

Graham:

He was very supportive when I was taking my sabbatical. He was saying, “Go! Go!” [laughs.] I always want to live just right next to work, so we had an apartment right at Harvard Square. Ron helped setting it up, and he would come now and then. I also commuted a little.

Abbate:

That is really supportive.

Graham:

Yes! You know, in this situation, it means he’s doing a lot more work, and had to go to the airport a lot more.

Abbate:

Did your kids live with you, or in New Jersey?

Graham:

My kids are all grown up now . . .

Abbate:

But at the time when you were at Harvard?

Graham:

At that time, they spent some time with us, some time with my ex-husband. My first marriage lasted about nine years, but I think we grew apart. With Ron, we’ve been together for a long time, more than twenty years, almost. We are actually in the same field—so I always say we have a wider communication bandwidth! [both laugh.] I think it happens to women a lot, because you run into people at work, and most of them are men! [laughs.] And he’s great fun to be with, even after so many years. We have a wonderful time!

Moving to California

Abbate:

Well, that’s great! So, he was the one who wanted to go to California because he had come from California?

Graham:

He was born in Bakersfield and was always talking about going back some day. We decided it was the right time, so we did.

Abbate:

And you came right here to San Diego?

Graham:

Yes.

Abbate:

So you’re both here?

Graham:

Yes.

Ron is also a faculty of Computer Science and Engineering, and he’s involved with the new Institute: the California Institute of Information Technology.

Abbate:

I don’t think I know about that.

So you’ve been here six years?

FCG. Four years.

Abbate:

Are you in charge of a lab here?

Graham:

Well, my work is more theoretical, so I have a number of students and postdocs, and there are some visitors who want to come. In both departments people are very good.

Abbate:

When you say “both departments,” that’s . . .

Graham:

I’m in Mathematics and CSE (Computer Science and Engineering).

Abbate:

Because the building we’re sitting in is “Applied Physics and Math.”

Graham:

Oh, yes! It’s called “APM,” but it’s a very old name.

Abbate:

So that’s not the actual . . .

Graham:

It says “Applied Physics and Mathematics,” but the fact is, there’s no person in Physics in this buildings. Computer Science occupies several floors, and Math occupies several floors. It’s very good for me now, but Computer Science is going to get its own building very soon. They just started to dig a hole. So I think a few years down the line, Computer Science will move.

Abbate:

So it won’t be as nicely integrated as it is now.

Are you also involved with the Supercomputer Center?

Graham:

Not directly. I know many good people there, and there is some overlap of the technical work—working on these large complex networks—and people there have a lot of data and measurements, so I send my students over now and then. I actually manage to get them to talk to my undergraduates sometimes.

Very recently we got a big NSF ITR grant, and one of the co-PIs is from the Supercomputer Center.

Researching Information Networks

Abbate:

Right now, you’re working on network problems?

Graham:

Part of my research is in studying huge information networks. If you just have zeroes and ones, it’s very hard to deal with. There are just too many possibilities. So a lot of data really have a network characteristic, which ideally you take advantage of.

Abbate:

So you’re trying to look for patterns or structures within networks?

Graham:

You can think of each Web site as a node, and the links, together, make a very big network with billions of nodes. If you know the structure—if you can even get a relatively clean description of it — then you have an advantage. Many basic problems have to be completely redone, in the new paradigms of huge data, incomplete information and dynamically changing environment. In the old days one asked: How many nodes? How many links? Forget it! We don’t know how many. The main memory can only hold this much, and most of data are stored somewhere on disks. All problems are to be looked upon from a different light. How will you even be able to visualize the networks, for example? You would like to be able to extract relatively few parameters—that can be controlled — - instead of reading the whole sweep, one bit after another.

Abbate:

You want to find a sort of higher-order structure, rather than just, “Here’s all the nodes and links.”

Graham:

Yes. The visualization helps you to proceed with whatever you want to do. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of problem. Visualization leads to better algorithms, and vice versa. I have fun with some of my students doing visualization, that is different from watercolors.

Participation in Professional Societies and Publications

Abbate:

Have you been active in professional societies a lot?

Graham:

Yes, serving on various committees of these societies.

Abbate:

What are the main ones?

Graham:

ACM, AMS and SIAM. There are also editorial committees, which involve journals.

Abbate:

And these are math journals, mainly?

Graham:

Both math and CS. I have served in various capacities, such as Editor-in-Chief and as a member of editorial boards; I’m on more than a dozen of editorial boards and Editor-in-Chief of two. I recently stepped down from co-Editor-in-Chief of the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics. It’s too much work! [laughs.] However, I just started an exciting new journal, Internet Mathematics.

Abbate:

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Graham:

Technical accomplishments?

Abbate:

Either way.

Graham:

That is a hard question! And I’ll tell you why: because I think my best accomplishment is probably down the line, a couple years from now! [laughs.] I have a few remaining projects, starting to bear fruit.

Abbate:

That must be a great feeling!

Reflections on Women in Mathematics

Graham:

Yes! So I’m looking into the future for this answer. [laughs.] In fact, some of my women friends were joking among us; we were saying the growth curves for men and women are different. You know, in mathematics one of the most famous awards is the Fields Medal.

Abbate:

Right.

Graham:

And it has an age limit of forty! [laughs.] So there is either a myth or a misguided belief that if you have any brilliant ideas, they must surface very early—really early on! I don’t know the truth about that. I see people showing their brilliance in different times of their life. I certainly feel that for a woman, it really takes more time, like wine, to reach the right density. It’s a different curve.

Abbate:

Did you read a book by Margaret Murray, who I think is a math Professor at Virginia, called Women Becoming Mathematicians? [MIT Press, 2000.] It might be interesting, because it’s a study of women who got math Ph.D.’s, I think in the 1950s and ‘60s, and she has that same argument: that there’s this myth that you have to do everything when you’re twenty-five, but that if you looked at the data for women, they tended to do things later on, and that was fine.

Graham:

Yes. Yes. I think there are many reasons for this. I know that some men really need total focused isolation, in order to do technical work. They have to hide in the attic or something, in order to have that kind of intense focus. On the other hand, as a woman, you have to handle many things all at the same time. You have to handle family, children, husband, career—and doing technical work. Very often, I think you can use that as an advantage. You don’t just work on one topic but handle several topics at the same time: so you cook, and you think! [laughs.]

Abbate:

That’s a neat way of thinking about it!

Graham:

Being able to—I won’t say entirely compartmentalize, but women are better at handling several things all at once.

Abbate:

What have you found most interesting or satisfying about working at this intersection of mathematics and computers?

Graham:

I feel that I’m lucky to be working at a time when challenging problems are emerging and theory can make a real difference. We are facing the task of building a sound scientific foundation to deal with these difficult problems of such enormous scale. All sorts of problems are opened up, and it’s so much fun. It’s hard to imagine I’m paid to do such fun work! [both laugh.]

Abbate:

So you were there at the foundation, in a sense.

Graham:

Indeed, there’s a lot of fundamental issues.

Abbate:

It sounds like you had a lot of mentors as you went along. Did you also try to mentor other people?

Graham:

Yes, definitely. When I first walked into the field, I was totally ignorant at that time. I got a lot of help from many good people. And now I’m trying to pay back by helping other people I know.

Abbate:

Did you ever experience any gender discrimination that you could tell, in terms of pay or promotions or anything?

Graham:

I think not on pay and promotion; not on those major issues. I think when I was at the Lab I was treated very well; and when I was at Penn, I was the first tenured woman there! I was treated very well there, too; and the same thing here at UCSD. But I would not say it didn’t happen, either.

Abbate:

In terms of attitudes, more?

Graham:

Yes. Even nowadays, it’s quite obvious that some…. You see, the way we are: it’s not some people’s image of a typical professor. Sometimes I give people room for that. I understand when I walk into a room, perhaps I do not project the same prestigious image as someone with a grey beard, or like my husband: blonde and tall. In order to overcome such a “handicap”, you have to work extra hard to compensate. As a result, you get stronger and better and most people will recognize that. And it is true that, for some people, they probably will never quite see you! [laughs.] You walk by and they don’t see you—which is perhaps the worst. Those people are not the ones that I care about anyway. I certainly hope things will work out better for a lot of young people, so they don’t get discouraged.

Abbate:

Do you have a sense that the field is more open to women now?

Graham:

It certainly is. I think that there is plenty of opportunity. In fact, quite a few of us have been preparing a proposal on empowering women. There are things that we can do, such as providing guidance at critical periods, when people are making their minds—so they do not drop out as much as the records show now. Because I think it takes a certain persistence both in staying in the career path and in solving hard problems. If you give up too soon, you probably didn’t go through more than other people have done so far, and it’s hard to have results. The same thing is true for having a career: if you just don’t give up and stick it out, after a while it’s easier and gets better.

Abbate:

Do you find that women end up in certain sub-specialties in math and computing?

Graham:

It is true, definitely, in math. For example, I would say in applied areas, there are more women.

Abbate:

Interesting. Do you know why that is?

Graham:

I certainly know it as a fact. I do not have a very clear explanation for it.

Abbate:

Are there more women faculty in those areas?

Graham:

Perhaps.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who might be thinking of going into applied math or computing?

Graham:

Yes. My usual advice is for them not to get intimidated. In a way, in science—it’s not entirely black or white, but it has clear definitions, and if you get it, you are on equal ground. When I first went to college, I ran into these guys—I’m pretty sure that in every class there are a few—who seemed to already know everything! [laughs] Later on, I found out that it was not the case. In fact, the worst thing that can happen is that you pretend you know something and you don’t.

Abbate:

Because then you won’t learn.

Graham:

Then you will never have anything to build up from. Many areas already have a well-developed, huge body of knowledge. It is apparent that you cannot be good at everything. If you are good at something, and really have it solid, then you can develop from there. And no one knows everything—so don’t be intimidated!

Abbate:

Well, thank you so much for speaking with me! It’s been really fun!

Graham:

Well, thanks!