For Mary Lou Soffa, Retirement Just Means New Challenges

Mary Lou Soffa’s earliest introduction to the burgeoning field of computer science was as an undergraduate intern in information technology at the United States Bureau of Mines in Pittsburgh, where she programmed computers by manually connecting wires.

She was a mathematics student at the University of Pittsburgh because there was no computer science department or degree.

Soffa and computer science have come a long way. As pioneer in the field, she has made an indelible mark through research contributions, her mentorship of students and her emphasis on expanding diversity and inclusion.

“My passions have been producing good research with wonderful Ph.D. students and trying to improve the representation of women in computer science,” said Soffa, Owen R. Cheatham Professor of Sciences and former chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Mary Lou Soffa with students in a classroom

Mary Lou Soffa, the Owen R. Cheatham Professor of Sciences and former chair of the Department of Computer Science, with students circa 2013.

After five decades in higher education, Soffa will retire in August of this year, but her legacy will have an impact for years to come at the school, UVA and beyond.

After earning a master’s degree in mathematics from Ohio State University, Soffa explored different fields looking for the right fit, from sociology to environmental acoustics to public health.

“During that time, I took some courses in computer science, and I fell in love with the field,” Soffa said.

In 1977, she earned a doctorate in computer science at Pitt, and subsequently joined the faculty there, where she would spend much of her career.

“It’s been a wonderful field to be in because there have been so many changes and advances,” Soffa said.

She has seen the progression of programming languages and the development of faster and more accurate machinery as well as advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Soffa has been on the front line of many of those advancements. Her diverse research interests include compilers and programming languages, software and systems engineering. In 2003, she was recognized by the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Programming Language, or ACM SIGPLAN, for authoring one of the most influential papers in 20 years related to the design and implementation of programming languages. Her research has informed the performance, reliability and security of software systems.

In 2004, Soffa left Pitt for the University of Virginia to take on the role of department chair, occupying that post through 2012. During her time as chair, she made significant changes at UVA that are still in place today.

“One of the first things Mary Lou did as chair was initiate the effort to create a computer science major for students in the College of Arts and Sciences. She was instrumental in launching the interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science degree in 2006,” said David Evans, professor of computer science, who chaired the committee to create the degree and served as its first director.

“During her time as chair, the major grew quickly from just a few students in the first year to become the most popular major offered by a department in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.”

During her second term as chair, Soffa faced several challenges brought on by the Great Recession, including hiring freezes, salary freezes and cuts to department funds, said Kevin Skadron, the Harry Douglas Forsyth Professor of Computer Science, who succeeded her as chair.

“She did a really wonderful job of shielding the faculty from this and minimizing our need to worry about it,” Skadron said. “She did everything in her power to help junior faculty succeed. When I became chair, one of my first realizations was how much of an umbrella she had been. She persuaded me to be a candidate for that position. In my first year as chair, she was a mentor to me, helping me find my footing.”

Soffa hasn’t just mentored her up-and-coming colleagues, she has been an unwavering advocate for students. She has directed 32 Ph.D. students to completion, half of whom are women.

“All of my students have been the highlights of my career,” Soffa said. “I’ve wanted to guide students so that they feel successful and confident. My students have gone on to produce excellent research in academia and industry. I’ve been very proud of their accomplishments.”

Among them was Tanima Dey, who earned her Ph.D. from UVA in 2013 and is now a senior software engineer at Intel.

“Dr. Soffa has been a role model as a researcher, academic, advisor and mentor (the list can be quite endless),” Dey said in an email. “When I just started graduate school and did not know much about research, she nurtured and taught me how to think and tackle a research problem.”

Soffa’s mentorship still informs how Dey approaches her professional career.

“Given a very competitive research topic at that time, the journey was not an easy one, but certainly was a successful one because Dr. Soffa made sure I pushed the boundaries and was motivated to work hard to achieve my goals,” Dey said.

“I continue my professional work in that light, pushing the limit to do my best work and keep the ‘fire in the belly’ she ignited. I am forever grateful to Dr. Soffa as she played a big part in who I am today.”

Sandhya Dwarkadas headshot

"As a pioneering leader in the fields of programming languages and software engineering, and in her relentless efforts to increase the retention of women in computing research, Mary Lou Soffa has been an inspiration."

Sandhya Dwarkadas, Walter N. Munster Professor and chair of computer science

Wei Le is another former Ph.D. student. Now an associate professor of computer science at Iowa State University, Le has won multiple awards for her research in software and artificial intelligence engineering.

“When I was confused about something and not even able to formulate the question clearly because of the confusion, Dr. Soffa could sharply figure out what I was actually asking and quickly provided crisp answers,” Le recalled in an email. “Dr. Soffa was always thinking from the student perspective. She sincerely wanted us to do our best.”

When asked about the most significant aspects of her career, Soffa doesn’t focus on the research accomplishments and accolades she has received — although there are many.

Her honors, to name a few, include the White House’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (1999), the Association for Computing Machinery/Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society Ken Kennedy Award (2012), the ACM Special Interest Group in Software Engineering Influential Educator award (2014), the IEEE Technical Committee on Software Engineering Distinguished Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Award (2015) and the UVA School of Engineering Distinguished Faculty Award (2020). The Association for Computing Machinery recognized her as one of the Top 25 Software Engineer Scholars in the World in 2007.

Another important honor, the A. Nico Habermann Award from the Computing Research Association in 2006, recognized her work to increase the numbers and successes of underrepresented groups in the computing research community.

It has been her relationships with her students and her work to amplify women’s voices in the field of computer science that have meant the most to Soffa.

“When people mention my name, I hope they remember that I worked hard for diversity for women in computer science,” Soffa said.

One of the most significant challenges Soffa has faced is being a woman in a male-dominated field. Early in her career, she recalls her paper submissions to conferences being routinely rejected — until she began publishing them with her initials instead of her full name. Through tireless effort, she has tried to pave the way so that women who come after her do not experience the same challenges.

“We have more women who are undergraduates and Ph.D. students. When I got my Ph.D., I think only 9% were given to women,” Soffa said. According to a 2021 National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics report, around 20% of computer science Ph.D. graduates are women, compared to about 28% at UVA.

“I know there are more women in computer science — not enough, but there are more,” Soffa said. “And I think there is a feeling of being included in the field.”

Sandhya Dwarkadas, the Walter N. Munster Professor and current chair of computer science at UVA, is one of the women who came up behind Soffa, and who also has long been active in increasing diversity in the field.

“I have personally benefited from Mary Lou’s efforts to foster a more inclusive environment in computing research. As a pioneering leader in the fields of programming languages and software engineering, and in her relentless efforts to increase the retention of women in computing research, she has been an inspiration,” Dwarkadas said. “She will be missed in her retirement, but she leaves us all in a better place.”

For Soffa, this is as much a time of looking forward as a time of reflection.

“I will miss the total involvement in research, the interaction with my graduate students and with my colleagues. I’ve loved my career, my field and the people in the field,” Soffa said.

“The projects I’m looking to do now involve women’s rights and the right to vote. I’m looking forward to the next phases in my life. I’m looking for new challenges.”