Audrey St. John

Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

In 2008, Audrey St. John came to Mount Holyoke as a visiting professor directly after earning her PhD in computer science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She was drawn to the job here by her passion for mentoring women in computer science and her firm belief that teaching at a women’s college could help to increase the representation of women in technology. In 2011, she became a Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor, and she received tenure in 2013.

In her courses, Audrey has a reputation for pushing students hard, and the students can see the impact on their understanding of and enthusiasm for computer science as well as on their perception of their own abilities. One student writes, “It showed me how much I can do when I don’t (and my teachers/professors don’t) let myself give up.” Another writes, “I would never [have] thought that I would be so comfortable with coding and feel confident about what I am doing within three months.” They speak of the long hours and hard work and also write that “it all paid off. I not only learned about computer science, I also learned about soldering, product design, marketing, and how to do a public presentation,” as well as learning “more than I ever thought would be possible for me, especially since I don’t think of myself as ‘good’ at math or science!”

Audrey’s primary research area is in rigidity theory, where the main goal is to determine whether a structure is rigid or flexible if it satisfies a given system of constraints. Her work is highly regarded within computer science, and she was awarded a prestigious NSF CAREER grant in 2013 to study how a team of robots can be constrained to maintain a rigid formation as they carry out a given task, such as a search and rescue mission. Additionally, one of Audrey’s special talents is in identifying interesting applications of rigidity theory that cross disciplinary boundaries, pursuing connections between rigidity theory and biology, physics, mathematics, and art. 

Audrey has a special talent for getting undergraduates involved in her research, matching students with interesting and important problems that she can see are within their reach even if they can’t at first. The result is that her students find that they can make genuine progress, discovering new examples, inventing a way to model constraints using 3-D printed materials, implementing algorithms, and proving theoretical results. It is a rare gift to be able to mentor students doing such high-level research, sometimes after just their first year in college. The productivity of the students is a testament to Audrey’s commitment to teaching outside the classroom as well as the students’ drive, insight, and creativity.

In addition to her work in her courses and research program, Audrey is tremendously active in making computer science visible and attractive to students by promoting countless events and activities around campus. From interactive hallway art, to 24-hour programming events like GameJam, Audrey is always trying to find new ways for students to discover computer science, and students who may have been intimidated or uninterested in computer science find themselves drawn in new directions; as one writes, “she has changed my perspective about the subject itself.” Enrollments in computer science courses on campus are now booming at all levels.

We are so grateful to have Audrey here and honor her commitment to students and her discipline. It is a great pleasure to present Audrey St. John with this Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching.