Name: Valerie Barr ’77
Title: Jean E. Sammet Professor of Computer Science and chair of Computer Science
Department: Computer Science
Areas of study: software testing, computer science education
Research focus: Valerie Barr studies the application of software testing to artificial intelligence systems and natural language generation systems, which can appear simple but actually raise a host of issues. For example, correctly captioning a photo involves complex decisions about color and location terms. If the photo shows two dogs, should the caption say the brown dog in front of the white dog? Is the white dog behind the brown dog? Is the brown dog actually beige? Determining how better to test and evaluate these kinds of systems can have implications when, say, a customer service chatbot is updated after the company’s product line changes. Barr also promotes interdisciplinary applications of computing by combining changes in computer science coursework with research and course-development collaborations with faculty across the liberal arts disciplines. She is very active in the computer science education community and has also led significant diversity efforts for the Association for Computing Machinery.
What drew you to your area of study: I started programming in 1972 when I was still in high school. While I studied math in college (because undergraduate computer science programs were rare at that time), I really enjoyed programming and all my summer jobs involved computer science applications, so the obvious choice was to go on in computer science.
What appeals to you about being a professor at Mount Holyoke: First, I am a Mount Holyoke alum from 1977, and who wouldn't want to come back here! Second, I have deep respect for Jean Sammet ’48 and her many contributions to computer science. So it is a huge honor to hold the chair that she endowed. Third, I am very excited about the data science Nexus concentration and the clear appetite at Mount Holyoke for interdisciplinarity. As a department we can make significant contributions to the intellectual life on campus by working with colleagues and students in other fields on interdisciplinary applications of computing.
What do you like about teaching: I love the 'aha!' moment when I see the lightbulb go on and a student gets it. And I love it when I can get students as excited as I am about all the cool stuff you can do with computing.
What do you look forward to at Mount Holyoke: I look forward to working with the wonderfully diverse student population, and to charting new territory as we build connections across campus between computer science and other fields.
What are your proudest accomplishments, academic or other: I am particularly proud of the work I have done as chair of the Association for Computing Machinery Council on Women in Computing to improve the situation for women in computing. I’m also proud of the curricular and programmatic work I have done that has had significant positive impact on recruitment into and retention in computing.
Favorite previous work experience: The computer science department at Union College, which I left after 13 years.
Favorite things about the campus and region so far: I have to say that Connecticut River Valley asparagus and sweet corn are pretty special!
What do you like to do when you are not working: I’m a road cyclist and (despite carbon footprint) like to take long drives to explore places I haven’t been before.
Favorite music: Lots of music genres appeal to me, though nothing can top the big, rich music of late Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert.