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HOW I MADE IT: MARIA KLAWE

Microsoft did the math, added her to the board

The president of Harvey Mudd College learned to love mathematics while traveling the world, helped build a Canadian university's computer sciences department and recently learned to ride a skateboard.

March 15, 2009|Alana Semuels

The gig: A math whiz who became president of Harvey Mudd College in 2006, Klawe was named to Microsoft Corp.'s board of directors last week. She has worked in the computer science and math departments at Princeton University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, and she is currently trying to perfect a version of the video game Dance Dance Revolution for the elderly.

Background: Born in Toronto. Klawe's father, a mapmaker, moved the family to Scotland when she was 4. They moved to Edmonton, Canada, when she was 12. She loved math, music, art, literature and painting.

Biggest adventure: Klawe dropped out of college halfway through her third year and traveled around the world for 14 months. She and a friend flew to Glasgow, Scotland; hitchhiked to Venice, Italy; took trains across Turkey and Iran; and rode buses across Afghanistan and Pakistan. They arrived on the border of India and Pakistan just as war was about to break out, so they crossed into India in a cart drawn by water buffaloes.

Math breakthrough: While traveling, Klawe, 57, began buying math books and playing chess, and she gradually realized she loved math. From the beaches of Goa, India, she wrote a letter to the University of Alberta asking if she could come back as a math graduate student. The school said no, so she returned and finished her undergraduate degree.

Education: Klawe received a bachelor of science degree, with honors, in pure mathematics in 1973, and her PhD in mathematics in 1977. For her graduate dissertation, she solved three 20-year-old math problems.

First big gig: Klawe was getting a second PhD in computer science from the University of Toronto when the school asked her to abandon the degree and join the faculty.

Biggest challenge: While working at IBM, Klawe and her husband, math professor Nicholas Pippenger, fielded offers from many prestigious universities. The couple turned them down and moved to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver to expand the computer science department there, in effect halving their salaries. They stayed for 15 years. "It was really hard at the beginning because the resources were so limited, but it was one of the best decisions we've made," she said.

On women in science: When she first began working in computer science in the 1970s and '80s, roughly 30% of the students were female. Now only about 15% are female. "The image of what a computer scientist is -- it's not something that appeals to women. In the early days, people thought it was mathematics and typing, and there wasn't this image barrier."

Ending up in Claremont: While at Princeton, Klawe decided to reject an offer to become president of Mudd. But she was at a cottage, staring at the sea, "when this shaft of light hit the water and I thought there were all these things I'd be missing." She decided to go to Mudd.

What she loves about it: "It's this amazing place where you have these people working hard and doing challenging academic work and also having an incredible sense of humor." She's learned to ride a skateboard there.

On her Microsoft interview: "Heaven for college presidents is when you get to talk to Bill Gates about your college."

Personal: Married with two children, 27 and 24.

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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