October 1st, 2015 - by Kristen Merritt
Deborah LaBelle has been famously supportive of Women in Computing, being the first ever speaker at WiConnects! I had an opportunity to speak with her about her past experiences as a women in computing member, how she found herself here at RIT, and what advice she would offer to current students today.
Professor LaBelle is a Lecturer for the IST department here at RIT; however, she was not always on the path of becoming involved in technology. She obtained a Bachelors and Masters degree in Mathematics before getting her Ph.D. in IST at Drexel. So, what made her become interested in IST?
LaBelle: I planned to be a mathematics teacher for 7th to 12th grade in high school right here in New York. And I still have a certification to do that, but I ended up in computing because the need was so great. That got me into computing and I really really liked it. So I stayed there, got married, moved to Rochester and worked for Kodak. But I always wanted to teach, and there was an opening at MCC that a friend told me about. So I loved it, I absolutely loved it. Except I had to get pulled out of there because of my husband's career. So we moved down to the south-east Pennsylvania area after almost 20 years of being at MCC. So I went, 'Oh! I'll get my phD while I'm down here in this big city'. So I got my Ph.D. in IST at Drexel while I was teaching at Penn State. And when I was done with that I said, I miss Rochester! So that's why I'm here. And I like it here, and I'll stay here as long as I continue to like being here.
After hearing about her love of math, I wanted to know how she became so enthusiastic about technology.
LaBelle: I think because it was exciting and new and different. When I switched over I thought math was really fun and I like it, but computing is always changing and I knew it was always going to be a challenge. And you have to learn. You have to constantly be learning and I like that, I like the challenge.
As any woman in a male-dominated field, there are always challenges that one must overcome. I wanted to know the biggest challenge that she had to face in relation to her work.
LaBelle: I think being recognized for my abilities. Sometimes I may not speak up for myself, and that may not be because I'm a woman. It may just be my personality. There have been times when I have to speak up for myself to be accepted as an expert in some things. In myself, and in my mind, I know I can do a lot. But I think part of it is being in a male dominated field; you don't get the recognition sometimes being a woman. I can learn very quickly, and in this type of field it isn't about what you know, it's about what you can learn. I don't know what it is, but as a young women in this field it was difficult to be recognized unless I went way above and beyond. Have you ever felt that way?
LaBelle: As I got older, I realized that I don't have to get that recognition. They'll learn it sooner or later. You know? But I think my time at Penn State helped. They made me an Assistant Professor without having a Ph.D. They paid for almost all of my tuition and gave me release time to finish it. I was awarded grant money to do research with my students, and I was promoted to IT Champion for the Campus.
Who was your biggest role model when you initially starting working?
LaBelle: I do remember one person. She was the first woman chair of the math department at the college I worked at. And I really liked her, she had a strong personality and was also a great teacher. At the time I was the only woman in my department. She was older than me, probably around my mom's age. She gave me a lot of good advice on being a lone woman in a group of men. She was the first person that said to me be your own self. You don't have to do what other people are doing in the classroom, or teach the way other people are teaching. Be true to yourself in the classroom.
After getting to know LaBelle, I wanted to see what she thought her field of study would look like in ten years.
LaBelle: I would like the future to be in wearables. Ten, fifteen years ago I was doing work with mobile. I did programming for the palm pilot! I still have my palm here somewhere... And when I was at NAZ I taught a class for the iOS 3. I'm still fascinated with the things you carry around. And now I got my fitbit, and I'm thinking about other wearables. I've always thought about how much do we want to know about each other? How much do I want to know about myself? How much do I want to know about my kids? Soon, I don't think we'll even need to carry something. It's going to be invisible. We'll be hands free, somehow, I don't know. But we'll probably be wearing something that we can take notes with, communicate with. The sky's the limit.
What new IST major would you want to study if you were a new college student?
LaBelle: If I was a new college student now... Knowing what I know about the majors? I probably would do the web and mobile, it's got so many possibilities for careers. You know, I like HCC, and I do like a little bit of programming. I think that web and mobile has a little bit of everything. I never really cared for networking. It's not something I'm interested in.
Finally, to wrap up our interview I asked LaBelle to give a bit of advice to aspiring women in computing majors today!
LaBelle: The first thing that comes to mind is to just be yourself. Be who you are, bring your own personality to your work. I think that's the most important thing that everyone should do. Instead of allowing another voice to change your mind, stick to your guns and do what you think is interesting. I think that's true for everyone. You have to be happy with your work, so you have to be true to yourself to do anything worthwhile. And you have to push in a little bit. You're going to be in a group of mostly young men, and you have to make your voice be heard just as much. I find personally that the group of students in the IST program seem to be accepting of everyone. Just take a deep breath, push your shoulder back, be present. Don't let yourself sink into the background.