People of ACM - Jennifer Widom

May 19, 2015

Jennifer Widom was named the  2015-2016 Athena Lecturer for pioneering foundations, architecture, and applications of database systems. She is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, where she also serves as Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs in the School of Engineering.

In addition to co-authoring textbooks widely used for teaching database systems design, use and implementation, she has served as editor of  ACM Transactions on Database Systems (TODS), VLDB Journal, and  IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering (TKDE). A frequent keynote speaker, she has served on the program committees of a variety of technical conferences, and as program chair for the ACM SIGMOD and the VLDB conferences.

An ACM Fellow, she is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She received the ACM SIGMOD Edgar F. Codd Innovations Award in 2007 and was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2000.

Widom received her Master's degree and PhD from Cornell University; a Master's in Computer Science from Indiana University; and a B.S. in Music with minors in Mathematics and Computer Science from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

What led you to pursue your research in non-traditional data management areas like active database systems and your decision to focus on an academic career rather than startup opportunities based on your research?

My PhD was in programming languages, logics, and verification. I switched to the database field when I joined the research staff at IBM Almaden. That's where I really learned about data management, and where I began establishing my independent research career and reputation. My father is a professor and he often talked about what a wonderful career it is, so when after five years at IBM I got the chance to join the faculty at Stanford, I jumped. Although I've consulted for or advised a number of start-ups, I haven't founded one myself. I've had some opportunities with some of my research projects, but whenever I began dabbling in that world, I realized just how much I prefer academia—the start-up world just doesn't mesh well with my lifestyle that prioritizes family and flexibility as much as work.

What attracted you to teach "Introduction to Databases," one of Stanford's three inaugural massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the fall of 2011, and has this approach to teaching increased access to higher education in computing?

I was already preparing materials to teach my introductory database class in a "flipped classroom" style, so when the MOOC idea emerged (note: it didn't have that name at the time), I thought about it a little and then leaped. I never imagined how much work it would turn out to be—it became all-consuming—nor how rewarding it would be. It's one of the most exciting single things I've done in my career. I had a huge number of immensely grateful students worldwide. Things have changed since then, though. At the time, the worldwide students felt like these three public free classes from Stanford were an unbelievable gift. Now they almost take MOOCs for granted!

Does your experience as an accomplished musician impact on your achievements as a recognized innovator in computer science, and do you perceive any connections between the principles that characterize music and the nature of computing?

While many people like to hypothesize about an intangible connection between music and computer science (or math), I don't think it's played into my own career. I was in music performance and then switched to CS, and even though the switch was via a computer-music class, other than that I haven't felt or forged a particular connection.

As an innovator of database technology, what advice would you give to students who are pursuing careers in this burgeoning field?

Databases have always been a very relevant field—a good and important one to be part of even if it hasn't always been the sexiest. Now with "Big Data" it's even more so. Students who pursue education or research in this area will find no end of relevant work, or interesting problems to work on.