The Vision Thing, By Sonia Ellis
Illustration by Tony Klassen
Dr. Ruzena Bajcsy was probably one of the few television viewers whose mind was not on Monica Lewinsky during President Clinton’s State of the Union Address last January. For her, the dramatic high point of the speech was contained in the following sentence: "I propose a 28 percent increase in long-term computing research." Bajcsy’s interest derived from the fact that she was then a little more than a month into a new job that will have her guiding federally sponsored computing research into the year 2000. In December 1998, she was named to a two-year appointment as director of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) at the National Science Foundation.
    Psychologically, the leap from Philadelphia to Washington was wrenching for Bajcsy, a member of Penn’s Department of Computer and Information Science since 1972 and chair for nearly five years; when first informed of the appointment in September, her reaction was mixed. "I was flattered at the selection because it’s very prestigious. So I was excited," she says. On the other hand, "I was worried because it’s a different type of work. All my life I did research. I worked in the lab and made measurements and built algorithms. And this new job is really marketing research–a very different thing." And then there was the matter of becoming well versed–quickly–in all the broader issues of computer science. "I am a specialist in robotics and machine perception," she says, "and now I have to learn about the problems in other areas in which I’m not an expert, like software, reliability, security, scalability, the network."
    Bajcsy is the sixth CISE director, and the first woman to hold the position–the latest in a string of firsts for her. When she received her doctorate in electrical engineering from Slovak Technical University in Czechoslovakia in 1967, she became the first woman in Slovakia to earn a Ph.D. That same year she moved on to Stanford University, studying artificial intelligence (AI) under John McCarthy, a pioneer in the field (in fact, he coined the term). When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, Bajcsy chose not to return and stayed on at Stanford to earn a second doctorate. Along the way, she wrote one of the first computer programs that enabled machines to recognize textured patterns.
    In 1979, seven years after coming to Penn, Bajcsy drew on her experiences at Stanford when she established the General Robotic Active Sensory Perception (GRASP) laboratory, which has since achieved international stature in the robotics community. "I wanted to create an experimental environment in which people can cooperate with different disciplines, and students can learn from each other," she remembers. "I was very much motivated by my time in the AI lab at Stanford. I thought that was an exciting environment, with so many different kinds of people around. I wanted to copy that."

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