(Editor’s note: Each month since May, the WVU Alumni Magazine online features a woman who has made her career in science or related field at the University. They each have a different, fascinating story to tell about how they’re contributing to human knowledge. Visit the site to find monthly updates on A Year of Women in STEM science, technology, engineering and math.)
They told her that computer science was no place for a woman.
So she went to grad school to become a computer scientist.
In the winter of 1969 during Frances Van Scoy’s senior year in college she started going to job fairs. She was confident. She was a math major taking the most difficult courses available. Her GPA was high. She’d led the campus blood drive.
She was hopeful when a major aerospace company decided to fly one of her male friends to California for an interview. It was a good sign.
“I go in there and they say, ‘We could hire you as a keypunch operator,’” Van Scoy, 63, recalled. “I said, ‘I was hoping to work on one of your NASA contracts.’”
But the company had a policy. The male engineers needed to be able to swear at work to be effective, and a woman in their workplace would hamper that ability. The company would also have to build two sets of bathrooms, which they said they couldn’t afford.
Forty years later Van Scoy, an associate professor of computer science at West Virginia University, still raises her arms in disbelief at the punch line of the story. She was appalled at the response. And the local companies weren’t much better. One of them told her that if hired, she would have to sign a statement saying she would forgo marriage and children.
“In retrospect, I’m glad that all happened because it did take a little bit of encouragement to go to grad school,” she said.
That “encouragement” was the knowledge that she needed a graduate degree to get the same jobs as her male classmates who had bachelor’s degrees.
Even before she made it to the graduate level, she was an oddity in a male-dominated world.
Her eagerness to solve a complex math problem in high school led her to study computer science as well as math in college. But few women surrounded her. In one class of 40 during her senior year, she was one of two women.
An adviser noticed her aptitude and interest in computer science and suggested she pursue the subject further. But his tune had changed over time.
“The year before that he was saying, ‘Well now look, you’re a young woman and you’re likely to get married, and you’re likely to live in a small town so you’ll probably either be a teller at a local bank or you’ll be a school teacher so you really need to take the courses to get credentials for a teaching certificate,’” Van Scoy recounted.
-Frances Van Scoy
Van Scoy was annoyed. She came from a long line of teachers, but she was passionate about computer science and math. On the other side were her math professors who told her that computer science was a step down. She would be entering a new, low-status field that had few job opportunities for a Ph.D. Clearly math was the field she should choose, they said.
And then there were her parents, afraid that if she didn’t become a teacher she wouldn’t be able to support herself.
With all of these voices uttering competing advice, Van Scoy acted as if the path toward computer science was as clear of obstacles for women as it is today.
She became the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Virginia. By 1979, she had an invitation from WVU to help create the computer science Ph.D. program there.
Through the looking glass
Van Scoy takes great pride in the fact that she’s distantly related to Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, one of the first computer scientists.
Hopper created the compiler, which translated programs written in computer languages into the string of 0s and 1s that computers understand, and paved the way for modern digital computing. Van Scoy points to Hopper as proof that women make significant achievements in the computer science field.
Van Scoy’s own work has encompassed creating computer modifications for the disabled, recruiting children into math and science fields, making the digital world more human and digitizing the humanities.
As an only child, Van Scoy amused herself by playing board games. She orchestrated several imaginary opponents and calculated how each would move their pieces while still allowing herself to win. When video games came along, it was much more challenging to compete with the computer.
In playing games like The Sims and Tropico, she’s experienced that same strategizing she used in board games. The player has a task. If the player completes it, she raises happy children or grows a functioning world. If she doesn’t complete her tasks, her children perish and come back as ghosts to haunt her, or her new world ends in apocalypse.
These games have simple storytelling, but once completed the story is over and forgotten. When playing an early game called Rogue, Van Scoy wanted to see if she could capture the narrative of the game. She opened a text window on her computer, paused the game periodically and described what had taken place.
But this became boring.
With the recent surge forward in the quality of computer graphics, interactive fiction is becoming big again, she says. Part of Van Scoy’s research is the development of a computer game based on “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll in which the player can direct the main character Alice through the story, choosing one path over another.
Along the way, the player can create a story, and depending on the player’s skill, a story worth sharing with others.
As she learns about constructing narrative, she’s developed her creative writing in the hopes that as she creates stories, she can map the process and teach it to her students who can use storytelling in their own games.
-Frances Van Scoy
“The world doesn’t need these guys to go out and write more first-person shooters,” she said. “People know how to do those pretty well by now. What we need are innovative kinds of games that nobody’s thought of yet.”
Interactive fiction is an emerging trend in games and one that is likely to attract K-12 girls, a population segment she’d like to see move toward computer science, for themselves and for the industry.
Helen Keller at the pump
When Van Scoy graduated high school, her town of Greenwich, Ohio, had 1,200 people. Of the 63 graduating seniors (44 men and 22 women), about 12 went on to college. Two of them, including Van Scoy, were women.
That rate is not much different from West Virginia today. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that only 10.4 percent of adults in West Virginia have completed a bachelor’s degree.
Van Scoy wants that to change. In the late 1990s, Van Scoy took part in a West Virginia EPSCoR initiative to involve children of the southern coalfields in technology. She developed and led a “Creativity and Computing” the outreach program for children.
She introduced them to green screen technology, taught them stop motion and showed them how to make their light saber battles become real on film. It was an incentive for them to stick with math and science.
“We can show kids, and that includes girls, that there’s some really neat things you can do with your life,” Van Scoy said. “But it takes preparing now and through high school and figuring out with the help of grownups how you can afford to go to college.”
This sort of engagement gives children a sense of power over their lives and encourages them to make college attendance a realistic dream, she says.
Her work has also been closely tied to job creation in the state. For many years, Van Scoy was the only faculty member in West Virginia with a Ph.D. in computer science. She learned the Ada programming language so new industries in the state that needed knowledge of the language to hold on to government contracts could send their workers to WVU, which laid the economic foundation for computer jobs in West Virginia.
Even with Van Scoy’s outreach work, she sees few women in her field. In a recent computer games course she taught, she had 20 students and all were men.
“I don’t know why we don’t have many women now,” she said. “I wish we had more.”
Van Scoy is intellectually curious about everything, especially computers. But she’s really in the field because she loves it. It’s one of the many things in life that gives her a sense of pleasure at having discovered something.
“It’s Helen Keller at the pump!” she said.
In 1887, Helen Keller learned to spell for the first time. She spelled W-A-T-E-R with her hands, as her teacher, Anne Sullivan, pressed hand signs into her palm under a stream of water from a pump.
That’s what learning does for Van Scoy. And it’s what she’d like her students to have, too.
“I wish that I could help my undergrads realize how wonderful it feels to realize you’ve learned something,” she said.
By Diana Mazzella
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