Home > academic enterprise, careers, Uncategorized > Vignettes of My Interactions with Mary Jean Harrold

Vignettes of My Interactions with Mary Jean Harrold

It is with great sadness that I have learned about the untimely passing of Mary Jean Harrold last Thursday. Remaining true to herself—never disclosing the difficulties she always overcame so stoically—Mary Jean kept her illness private, with only a limited circle of people being even aware of her condition. Consequently, the news of her passing came to me as a complete shock. As a member of my Ph.D. committee and academic colleague, Mary Jean had a hugely positive influence on me as a researcher and person. To convey what a truly remarkable individual she was, I would like to offer the following series of vignettes of my interactions with Mary Jean.

My first encounter with Mary Jean occurred during my first semester in the Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech. She just joined the university and was moving her lab there. I came to grad school having been frustrated with the practices of industrial software development that I had witnessed at my job. However, I could not find an advisor who shared my research interests. After listening to her presentation to the first year graduate students, I was impressed not only with her enthusiasm for her research, but also with the unabashed pride she displayed for the accomplishments of her grad students. I knew right away that I wanted to join her research group.

Being supervised by Mary Jean was an amazing experience. She held two hour-long meetings a week with each of her advisees. With that kind of unprecedented support, I quickly got up to speed in my project, which was sponsored by Boeing and involved building a static analyzer for avionics code written in Ada. By the end of the semester, I acquired a deep appreciation for program analysis and testing. At the same time, I managed to realize that my research interests lied more in building systems than in analyzing them. However, due to the excellent guidance I received from Mary Jean, I delivered on all of the project’s goals, and later a research engineer was able to pick up where I left off, so that all the research goals set off by the sponsor were met. Based on my own experiences as a faculty, I can say that this was a remarkable win-win outcome: I actively learned about a new-for-me research area, and the industrial sponsor got their deliverable. Under any other advisor, the results of working on a project only for a semester would have to be completely written off. When I informed Mary Jean that I wanted to focus on distributed systems for my Ph.D. work, she was very supportive and we retained a cordial professional relationship for the rest of my studies and beyond.

For most of my Ph.D., I was working across the hall from Mary Jean’s lab. She felt that it was highly important to have dedicated space for a lab, so that graduate students could form a community fostering a sense of collaboration and camaraderie. It had not been a day when I would not stop by her lab to talk to her students, forming lasting friendships with several of them. Mary Jean’s office was close by and she’d often stop by the lab to talk to her students.

Once, collaborating with another student, I was trying to meet a tight deadline and ended up pulling an all-nighter. As a smoker, my collaborator needed to step outside for a cigarette about every other hour. I would come outside with him, so that we could continue our research discussion. I clearly remember seeing Mary Jean leave the building late in the evening around 10:30 or 11pm. Then, we saw her coming back to work around 5am. “I find you guys in the same place where I left you yesterday—have you been standing here all night?”–Mary Jean greeted us in the morning. For us, pulling in an all-nighter was an uncommon occurrence; as soon as we reached our goals, we went home and crashed for the rest of the day. For Mary Jean, leaving the office late at night and starting her work day at 5am was her regular work style, something that she did day in and day out.

When I applied for faculty positions, I naturally asked Mary Jean to serve as a reference for my applications and to write me a recommendation letter. I clearly remember how in early December, I sent out my faculty job applications and e-mailed all my recommendation letter writers where they should submit their recommendations. I left the office around midnight and headed home. When I woke up the next morning, I saw an e-mail from one of the universities, informing me that Mary Jean Harrold submitted a recommendation letter on my behalf at 6:15am. Later I asked Mary Jean how she could have written and submitted a recommendation letter so fast. She told me: “Look, this recommendation letter will be very important for your career and procrastination on my part can hurt you. As soon as I got to work at 5am, I saw your e-mail. So I just wrote the letter and sent it out.” This incident left a profound impression on me—this incredible display of professionalism and compassion. Influenced by this experience, I always give the recommendation letters I have to write the highest priority.

When I accepted a faculty position at Virginia Tech, Mary Jean invited me to celebrate this accomplishment with her research group. She was sincerely happy for my success, and treated me as if I were her own student. We went out to lunch to a fairly remote restaurant driving in two separate cars, with Mary Jean driving one of them. During the lunch, we argued about what was the shortest route to get back to the Georgia Tech campus. It was decided that on the way back we would compete on who would get back first. However, in the spirit of a true research experiment we committed to not breaking any traffic laws. Sitting in the car driven by Mary Jean was quite an experience, as she took this competition with the utmost seriousness and was really eager to win. To her disappointment, both cars got back to campus approximately at the same time.

The last time I saw Mary Jean in person was during a very difficult period in my life. I just went through my mid-tenure review, and the results were mixed. I had strong publications and teaching records, but my lack of success in obtaining federal research funding could seriously compromise my chances of getting tenure. I was seriously considering quitting my faculty job and going back to work in industry. Back in Atlanta for a meeting with an industrial collaborator, I asked Mary Jean for an appointment. I needed her advice. Mary Jean gladly agreed to meet with me. I felt very dispirited and confused, and I was very honest with her. “I wrote seven NSF proposals in a row, and all of them got rejected. I am not sure if I can make it.” What Mary Jean asked me next was striking in its wisdom: “It makes no difference whether you think you can make it or not. Is making it what you would like?” Would I have liked to succeed as an academic researcher? Of course! Going back to making a living by writing computer code would have felt like a huge defeat. This simple question helped me to completely refocus my thinking and ultimately persevere in my quest for academic success.

My last e-mail exchange with Mary Jean occurred when I was just promoted to the rank of Associate Professor with tenure. Upon receiving a congratulatory e-mail from Mary Jean, I replied by thanking her and also expressing frustration at how difficult my tenure track experience had been: “It was quite a rocky journey–I feel fortunate that things have worked out in the end.” Mary Jean was ever so gracious in her reply: “It may have been rocky at first but you figured it out!”

I wish I had a chance to thank Mary Jean in person for all the great influence she has had on me. She has made a lasting impact on her research community and on all the people who were fortunate to have had a chance to interact with her. I hope that these personal vignettes I have shared will help others understand what a remarkable individual she was and help preserve her memory.

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  1. September 23, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    Nice remembrance Eli!

  2. Raul Santelices
    October 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Eli, thank you for sharing these wonderful memories. I didn’t know about most of them, but I clearly recognize Mary Jean’s personality in them. We miss her so much.

  3. October 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Hi, Eli. I am Sangmin Park, Mary Jean’s current PhD student. When you got your tenure, Mary Jean was happy as if her student got the tenure, and celebrated it with her research group. She was a true friend to everyone.

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