ACM-W NA Profiles: Mary Baker

Mary Baker is a HP Architect working in Computational Design for Additive. She was also named as a distinguished member of the ACM in 2019.

How did you get into computing? 

I came to computing through one of many happy accidents in my career, rather than through any wise and deliberate choice. I had the good fortune to take a lot of different kinds of courses in college and was even a Classics major for a while.

I ended up majoring in Math, because that is a likely choice for finding employment after graduating. My boyfriend at the time was a computer scientist and he kept trying to convince me I would love CS.

Unfortunately, all the CS courses were oversubscribed and there was no room in them for non-majors. But suddenly the accident happened — there was space in a data structures course because the outside faculty member teaching the course that semester taught so poorly that all the majors decided they would take it another time. That left space for me.

My boyfriend was right – I became addicted to the area even though I lacked the prerequisites. For me personally there was something so compelling about creating artifacts that could do something, and then trying to ensure they did what I wanted them to do. There’s a sense of power to that, and the results were more tangible for me than what I was able to do in mathematics.

After that I took more CS courses, and on graduating I ended up working as a programmer and developer in a couple of start-ups before heading back to grad school to learn more about CS.

You’ve worked in, among other things, mobile systems, networking, wearables, and digital preservation, privacy, and 3D printing. What interested you in so many disparate subjects?

There are so many exciting topics out there, that I find it hard *not* to get involved. If it weren’t for the learning curve in tackling a new area and the finite number of hours in the day, I would certainly try to play with all the things! But this goes contrary to the typical and very sensible career advice to focus on one thing and become the expert there.

I cannot say I’m the world’s expert in a particular topic. What I can say instead is I have learned a lot about several topics and have some expertise in applying certain approaches or ways of looking at problems. I’ve also found that the things I’ve learned in one area often apply in novel ways to another area, and unless you’re very familiar with both areas, you might not see the connection.

By switching topics periodically I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people who are indeed experts, which is always a delight. Further, the different areas I’ve worked in share more than it might seem, such as their direct impact on people’s experiences with technology.

Which of your research papers was your favorite? 

I’ve enjoyed the process of co-authoring work with so many sets of colleagues, interns, and students that it’s hard to choose. My favorite might be the work with Shrirang Mare and Jeremy Gummeson: “A Study of Authentication in Daily Life” that was published in SOUPS in 2016. This was particularly enjoyable because we got to build a wearable logging system and learned so much from the very interesting people who participated in the study. People are always fascinating to study.

A personal favorite is “Vitis Propulsion: Theory and Practice” co-authored with Margo Seltzer, Sue Honig, and Berry Kercheval (Stanford Technical Report Technical Report No: CSL-TR-98-751 from way back in 1998) [A paper about which grapes move most in the microwave]. Oddly, this joke paper was later used by a legitimate biologist to help teach students how to write a research report — who would have guessed?!

What part of your work are you most excited about?

Right now I’m thrilled to be working in 3D printing, especially industrial scale 3D printing. The world of additive manufacturing is blossoming and expanding in so many ways. Scale is part of what makes this exciting.
At the small end physically we have an increasing ability to print individual voxels [the 3d equivalent of a pixel], controlling color and material and thus enabling new behaviors and purposes for finished parts.

The need for this fine control in the physical realm requires the digital side to scale up, as we now do design work involving many millions of individual geometries.

The field is also scaling up on the physical side, allowing us to print high volumes of parts efficiently where each part is individually customized. Additive manufacturing isn’t just giving us new ways to create existing parts, it’s giving us entirely new things we can do in medicine, construction, art, sustainable packaging, apparel, and so on. This is a very rewarding area to work in right now.

How does 3d printing embody your passion for solving problems with tangible outcomes?

3D printing is the most tangible of all the areas I’ve worked in. You actually get a physical thing as the outcome – it’s hard to get more tangible than that! In addition, like programming, it offers a sense of power. In this case it’s the power to create physical objects and then see if they look and behave the way you envisioned.

Working in 3D print is the first time I’ve been able to apply programming, design, mathematics, and artistic license all at once.

Part of my job is to figure out how to use HP’s 3D print technology to print things people haven’t imagined printing or didn’t think it would be possible to print. This is great fun. It’s also an exceptionally satisfying way to solve problems. For instance, when my teenage son was learning to drive and expressed concern that he would hit the low fence post at the edge of our driveway, I designed a modular 3D printed sculpture to sit on top of the post. Problem solved.

Has the focus of your work changed during the pandemic?

I think many of us felt the same urgency when it struck, hoping we could use 3D modelling and print capabilities to help solve gaps in the supply chain for essential items for hospitals and patients. The number of volunteers was amazing.

Many people have predicted that industrial scale additive manufacturing would help provide more distributed, local supply chain resilience, and the activities we saw and continue to see due to the pandemic have proven this out. My work changed briefly as a result, and I contributed designs for a few functional items that I hope were helpful, but I think the more important efforts in our pandemic response came from mechanical engineering specialists and those who knew how to collaborate with medical organizations, shepherd designs and testing through government regulatory bodies, and organize volunteers in so many countries at once.
HP and its partners did so much along these lines even beyond printing over 4 million parts, and this truly made a difference.

The pandemic and also the horrendous racial injustices that continue to make the news have changed how I think about 3D print personally. I’ve found that for me 3D design and printing is also my go-to medium for expressing and embodying emotions such as despair and hope.

What advice would you give people who are interested in academia and professional research but can’t choose?

This is trickier to answer than it might seem, because industrial research labs and even government research labs change in nature, and the culture of an academic department can be very different across educational institutions. Generalized comparisons may not hold in any particular case.
Overall you should ask yourself what gives you the most gratification.

Teaching? Probably an academic position makes the most sense, although there are numerous opportunities to teach within companies as well.

Publishing? Some research labs look very favorably at publication. Others don’t much notice it, and yet others disparage it as taking time away from what they consider useful accomplishments.

Collaborating with colleagues? Students are wonderful collaborators, but some departments are much less collaborative among faculty colleagues than others.

Patented inventions? Some universities provide good support resources for this, and others don’t, while almost all research labs do.

Beyond understanding what gives you the most gratification, you need to get people in any research labs and academic departments you’re considering to share candidly their understanding of the culture and values of their organization to help you choose.

What have you learned that you want to pass along? 

This is a difficult question for me, because I’m quite the bundle of bad habits: procrastination, stubbornness, distraction, and not so infrequent feelings of rebellion! I guess I would pass along three suggestions.

The first is to identify any bad habits you might have honestly and figure out how to accommodate them. This has been super helpful for me. I always want to work on the thing that isn’t what needs to be done by tomorrow. As a result, I sometimes go out of my way to get things done early; that way, when those things actually must be done (and I’ll no longer want to work on them), they’ll already be mostly done. Sometimes I know that won’t be possible, so I’ll try to block out chunks of time on my calendar before deadlines, with the hope that it’s enough time to dither, be distracted, make banana bread, play with a kid or a cat, and still get the thing done.

The second suggestion is to identify things you can turn into good habits. Does your job involve a lot of writing and you are better at that in the morning than the afternoon? If so, see if there’s a chance to arrange your schedule around that and perform other required tasks in the afternoon. Are you happiest working with others, individually, or some pattern of the two? You may be able to tailor your position in the direction that makes you most effective. Good managers are often open to this, since they too want you to be your most effective.

The third suggestion is the most trite but also the most important: if at all possible, do what you love. The momentum and motivation from working on what appeals to you will help carry you through lots of tedious individual tasks, bad work situations, and some of the ups and downs of life. It’s not a guarantee, but it will help.