Meet Irene Greif, First Woman Graduate of MIT with Ph.D. in CS - Yarency Avelar

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

There's no doubt that women are underrepresented in the STEM field and have been for centuries. Despite this, women leaders like Irene Greif have knocked down the stereotypical barriers that are placed on women pursuing a career in the STEM field today.

Irene Greif is an American computer scientist, but not just any scientist– she was the first woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT. Greif was first drawn to computer science in her senior year of high school in 1964 when she was attending Hunter College High School in New York City. She learned computer science using an IBM 1401 computer with punch cards and machine language during high school.

Throughout her career, Greif learned many math concepts, which fueled her drive to pursue computer science. Although Greif was at MIT, she felt the institution "had more of an engineering feel" than she was comfortable with. This may have led her to feel incompetent since it wasn't very common for a woman to study engineering. Due to this, she continuously switched back and forth between math and the then-new computer science but ended up obtaining a degree in mathematics.

However, this did not discourage Irene Greif from pursuing a career in computer science. Greif knew there was a lot of math similar to that of computer science. She got creative and chose to take math courses that were very similar to those of computer science and created her computer-science major and gave the courses "the feeling" she liked.

Grief's experience at MIT is the experience that many young women in the STEM field continue to face today. At MIT, Grief was in the first big co-ed class of 1965. In her class of 1000 students, there were 50 women--something that's not so surprising, even in today's society. In an interview with The Atlantic, Irene Greif recalls to the interviewer,

"I remember, though, feeling that it was hard to find appropriate study groups. Because if you didn't find the right women doing the right courses in your dorm, finding a group of guys to work with was just, you know, for young women, laden with this is-this-dating-or-is-this-working-together kind of stuff. So it was hard." (The Atlantic).

Moreover, according to The Atlantic, women from other fields mentioned to Greif that they were told by people, "you're going to waste your degree, or you shouldn't be doing this, or you should study X instead of Y." Luckily, Greif had her mother to support her. She ultimately stayed at MIT to obtain her Ph.D. in computer science. She became a researcher, moving away from mathematically oriented computer-science spaces to office automation and human-computer interface in the '80s.

Irene Greif serves as an inspiration to many young women. She is proof that no matter how challenging things get, you can still take a different path to your desired dream.

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