Computer Science Legend Anita Jones Retires from the Engineering School

June 28, 2010 — After a prolific career in computer science, Anita Jones has retired from the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Among many achievements, Jones helped to raise U.Va.'s computer science department to national prominence and directed science and technology policy at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Jones' work as a technology entrepreneur, teacher and researcher has contributed to the growth of computer science and inspired future generations of women to pursue careers in science and technology fields.

Jones officially retired in January, but her work is not done. Retirement begins a new phase in her lifelong love affair with learning. She remains involved with the University, continues to serve on a number of high-level, policy advisory boards and is devoting time to learn Spanish.

"Life is much more fun if you're always learning," Jones said. "Computer science is one of the fastest-evolving fields. In this field, if you're not learning, you'll quickly fall behind."

Now a professor emerita, Jones still works from her Engineering School office several days a week, where she is helping plan for the computer science department's upcoming move into Rice Hall, the school's $75 million, six-story Information Technology Engineering Building. She also mentors young women students who are following the trail she helped to blaze.

Jones' work ethic, record of achievement and diverse interests are defining elements of her career.

The seeds of her life's course were planted early in her Texas childhood. Jones' father was a petroleum engineer who encouraged her to pursue a career that would make a difference in the world. Her mother, who trained as a ballerina and danced in several Hollywood films, instilled an appreciation for the arts. 

In 1960, Jones graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and set off for Rice University, where she earned a degree in mathematics. She then earned a master's degree in English literature from the University of Texas before heading to MIT and then Carnegie Mellon University to earn a doctorate in computer science.

While at Carnegie Mellon, she met the man who would become her husband, fellow computer science legend William Wulf. The two shared a love for computer science and entrepreneurship and eventually founded a software company, Tartan Laboratories, which developed products based on optimizing compiler technology. The company was sold to Texas Instruments in the late 1980s.

Jones and Wulf then came to U.Va. in 1989 with a mission to strengthen the Engineering School's young and as-yet-unranked Department of Computer Science. By all accounts, their work has paid off.

The department's graduate program is now ranked 28th in the country and is growing progressively stronger. In recent years, the department's researchers have secured more than $11 million in funding to research software engineering, wireless sensor networks, security software systems and computer architecture. Faculty members routinely win highly competitive grants and fellowships, including National Science Foundation Career Awards. One faculty member recently secured a Google Research Award for $1 million to study energy efficiency in large Internet data centers.

Throughout the years, Jones has helped to create a diverse culture in the department. Many of the department's top students are female, including several Computer Research Association Award winners and a member of the team twice designated a world finalist in the Collegiate Programming Contest of the Association for Computing Machinery.

"Diversity in science and technology is absolutely critical," Jones said. "We need to tap the best and brightest of U.S. citizens, and people across the world, and women and minorities are an underused source of talent.

"It's particularly important for women to enter these fields because they have an affinity for solving problems with a human element. They show taste and sensitivity when applying their knowledge and skills to technical problems."

In addition to helping to put U.Va.'s Computer Science Department on the map, Jones has been active on the national science and technology policy scene. Her involvement has been a defining characteristic of her career. In 1993, President Clinton appointed her director of defense research and engineering in the Department of Defense, which was at that time the highest technical job ever held by a woman in the organization. Together with her husband, who served as president of the National Academy of Engineering and assistant director of the National Science Foundation, the couple is widely regarded as the preeminent engineering power couple on Capitol Hill.

Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google and known as one of the fathers of the Internet, acknowledged the couple's contributions to the field during the computer science department's 25th anniversary celebration earlier this spring.

"These are two really remarkable people," Cerf told the audience. "You know them as people who have been part of your community for a very long time. … I know these two as creatures of Washington and they are a true example of a power couple, two people who really brought enormous influence out of our computer science community into Washington policy circles."

This influence remains strong – whether at the U.Va. Engineering School, the MIT Corporation's Executive Committee or the Defense Science Board, the senior science advisory board to the Department of Defense. Even in retirement, Jones continues to be an intellectual force. 

Her current projects include work with In-Q-Tel, a non-profit organization that helps bring small companies' technological innovations to the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader U.S. intelligence community. Another project in which she was a founding participant, the Computing Community Consortium, was recently recognized on the White House Office of Science and Technology's blog as a model for creating visions in a way that effectively sets the federal research agenda.

A fitting tribute to the impact of Jones' career was her recent election the American Philosophical Society, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1745. With her election, Jones joins a society whose past members include history's most accomplished thinkers and science practitioners: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Louis Pasteur and Charles Darwin, among many others. The society's mission of "promoting useful knowledge" also describes Jones' legacy.

Whether helping the Pentagon to develop unmanned aircraft or leading a group of women computer science grad students to pick apples on Carter's Mountain, Jones has done so with a commitment to the belief that science and technology can improve society. 

"Engineers build products and technologies that catalyze change in every field. I tell young students, 'If you have a dream of creating change and making the world a better place, then learning to be an engineer equips you with just the right skills.' "

— By Zak Richards