Carla E. Brodley, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, has several driving passions. Among them are advancing participation of women and underrepresented minorities in computer science and applying machine learning to real-world problems in fields ranging from predictive medicine to remote sensing.
This month, the Association for Computing Machinery, a leading international computing society, honored her for both, naming her a 2016 fellow. The fellows, who are chosen by their peers, represent just one percent of the ACM’s nearly 100,000 members.
“This award confirms what we knew: Carla Brodley is a world-class leader in computer science,” says James C. Bean, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “We congratulate her on this prestigious designation.”
Brodley, who was named dean in 2014, is an internationally recognized researcher in applied machine learning, a discipline that combines computer science and statistical techniques to reveal patterns in data arising from real-world problems. Her findings have led to advances not only in computer and information science but also in predictive and evidence-based medicine, medical imaging, computational biology, remote sensing, and computer security.
For example, with her graduate students and physicians at New York University’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, she recently developed an automated method to detect lesions in the brains of people with a form of epilepsy called focal cortical dysplasia, which is often medication-resistant. Successful surgical removal of the lesions depends on pinpointing their location, but doing so visually—that is, by expert neuroradiologists examining brain scans—results in high miss rates. The approach that Brodley and her colleagues invented—which uses data analysis of brain-surface segments in conjunction with neuroimaging and monitoring of seizure activity—correctly identified lesions in 80 percent of patients whose lesions had not been detected visually by neuroradiologists.
Other research projects include developing an online tool to screen journal abstracts for a literature review on healthcare best practices and combining human expertise with automation to classify regions of the Earth’s surface. “I believe that the richest findings in machine learning arise when the technology is applied to real-world problems, rather than relying on off-the-shelf solutions,” says Brodley.
[Recent news: Brodley spoke with TechTarget about a new curriculum designed to expose students to computer science, and GoodCall featured Brodley and the university’s plan to close the STEM gender gap.]
Advancing participation of women and minorities
That focus on innovation also marks her efforts on behalf of computer science students and professionals.
For a decade, she was a member of the board of directors of the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women, serving for three of those years as co-chair. The committee works to advance the participation of women in computer science across the research pipeline, from undergraduate and graduate education through faculty appointments and leadership positions in industry. Its programs include workshops, mentoring events, lectures, and research opportunities supported by the National Science Foundation, corporations, and philanthropy. In May, in recognition of her advocacy work, Brodley received the Harrold and Notkin Research and Graduate Mentoring Award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
“Today computer science is a basic literacy,” says Brodley, echoing President Obama’s call for the Computer Science for All initiative in his 2016 State of the Union address. “Yet there’s a shortage of individuals qualified for positions in the field.”
Brodley has been working nationally as well as locally to address that gap. At Northeastern, she has worked to scale up the master’s in computer science degree offered through ALIGN, a graduate program with a two-pronged goal: to enable people from diverse academic and professional backgrounds to transition into fields ranging from computer science to bioinformatics, and to increase racial and gender diversity, as well as outside-of-the-box thinking, in those fields. Coming from disciplines such as English, biology, and political science, students in the computer science ALIGN program spend two semesters learning basic computer science and then transition into the courses leading to the master’s degree.
The move was prescient: In September the White House noted that 51 percent of all STEM jobs are projected to be in a computer science-related field by 2018. “Northeastern, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary study, research, and co-op, has a history of developing programs not only to meet the huge demand for technology talent in today’s global economy but to contribute to a diverse workforce while doing so,” says Brodley.
The numbers tell the story. When it comes to diversity, CCIS outpaces other so-called research-one universities—those, like Northeastern, with a full range of baccalaureate programs, a commitment to graduate education through the doctorate degree, and a priority on research.
“Our numbers regarding diversity are growing,” says Brodley. “Today 26 percent of our undergraduate enrollments are women. That compares with just a 16 percent national average at other research-one universities.”