February 20, 2020

An Interview with Patricia Ordóñez, Tapia 2020 Deputy Program Chair

Patti Madura

Patricia Ordóñez, Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras, is the Program Committee Deputy Chair for the 2020 ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. We spoke to Patti about her career and her goals for Tapia 2020.

Tell me a little bit about your background – where did you grow up?

I am a first generation American; my parents were immigrants from Colombia and I was born in Kentucky but grew up in Maryland. My dad was a surgeon who became an ER doctor, my mother was a microbiologist. They met when she was one of his instructors.

How did you get into Computer Science?

This is a very complicated story. I went to a Math and Science private high school in Baltimore where I was focused on mathematics. I took a Computer Science class and really liked it, but my teacher discouraged me, he told me he didn’t think I was logical. I attended Johns Hopkins University as an electrical engineering student. I took a mini computer class where there were five women in a class of 100. I ended up moving into Mathematics and doing what was necessary for Pre-Med. I later switched to a Spanish major and decided that I would go into teaching and teach Math, Sciences and Spanish. I became a high school teacher who taught math and Spanish and coached field hockey and lacrosse. Eventually I left teaching but continued coaching and became a ballroom dancing teacher. I moved to a tech company and began working in tech support eventually becoming the lead technical trainer for the organization. Eventually I quit and took three months to travel through South America.

In Latin America I realized that every town had an Internet café. Travel also made me realize what privilege I had being an American and white and how where you are born can change the direction of your life. I was inspired to find a way to bring computing to everyone in Latin America. I decided to get my PhD from the department of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Paying for it was a challenge but I was able to get my sister to buy half my house and I applied for scholarships and took out loans. I became the first student in the Department of Computer Science at UMBC to receive an NSF GRFP (Graduate Research Fellowship). I became passionate about data science before it was even an area of focus. I could see there were huge troughs of data in medicine that needed algorithms, data structures, and computer science to make them useful.

When I was completing my PhD, I found I had many options – industry, a Postdoc or a Faculty position. I wanted to teach and do research and I also wanted to be in a Spanish speaking country. I decided to go to the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras. I was surprised when I got there to find Puerto Rico was just beginning to move to electronic medical records (EMRs). Since my research depended on EMRs, I had to rethink my research direction.

What did you end up doing?

I began working with assistive technology, computer science education and started on developing a computational biomedical research program. I decided to focus on increasing interdisciplinary big data research in Puerto Rico. I was able to secure a five-year NIH grant to increase interdisciplinary data science research. We did collaborations with several R1 institutions. We would send students to do internships who would come back and share what they learned. We also had faculty at the other institutions come to train our faculty. We are in the last year of the 5-year grant and we are pleased to be creating a data science program, the first at a majority minority serving institution that we know of.

I also came to realize that I can have a huge impact in Puerto Rico. I lost 15 years doing other things in my career. Many people come to diversity work after they have done their research work. I saw how much impact Data Science could have in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria one of our collaborators was able to do the first estimate for the mortality rate of the hurricane based on surveys, which in turn forced the government to provide the mortality data. Data science was having a real impact.

How did you become involved in the Tapia Conferences? Which was your first?

When I was in graduate school, I found there were people who would tell me that I was not PhD material and once I was getting my PhD that I wasn’t faculty. I had a grandfather who’d been a professor so I knew that if he could do it so could I. But I couldn’t stop thinking about other students who don’t have that knowledge or background, who didn’t have a family role model that would let them know they could do it. In 2009 I attended my first Tapia Conference and attended Jane Margolis talk. It had a profound impact on me. Jane was the author of Stuck in the Shallow End and she spoke about the bias of professors and teachers and it struck a chord with me. It was so like my own experiences throughout my life. And the lack of access and quality curriculum Jane spoke of reminded me of my trip through Latin America. This spurred my passion for trying to help create more access for minorities. Her talk inspired me to work in Puerto Rico and drove the creation of Computer Science 4 All Puerto Rico. We are working to launch a foundation that will work to incorporate high quality computational thinking and computer science and improve the K12 education system in Puerto Rico that has been broken by hurricanes, earthquakes and corruption.

What does the Tapia theme of Inclusion Drives Innovation mean to you?

Our goal at the Tapia conference is to help our participants become more innovative. We realize how important it is to have the voices of many different people on the stage. Increasing your exposure to many diverse perspectives will spur innovation.

Why should you participate in the Tapia Conference as a presenter?

Going to Tapia enables you to meet people who are up and coming in computer science who also care about diversity. They are your future advocates. The people you meet are the ones who will open so many doors for you in the future. You should submit your panel, workshop or poster because you never know what influence you will have that could change the world.