The personal history of Rachel Pottinger

(as if this was really going to be the personal history of someone else).

A long, long time ago (relatively speaking), I was born in the great city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is, of course, home of the Steelers. I was born during the AFC Divisional Playoff between the Steelers and Baltimore, which the Steelers won 28-10. I don't claim any credit for it, though, nor do I claim credit for the Steelers winning the Superbowl against the Cowboys that year.

Life was pretty simple for the first several years, I learned Pittsburghese with the rest of the Pittsburgh natives, and entered a life long love affair with milk. Then, just as I was getting used to life, my parents got divorced and then remarried. As a result of this, I wound up with a rather confusing family tree. I don't believe that I came out warped because of this, but others may disagree. My stepmom has written a book about the history of the vibrator which may confirm the beliefs of those who believe that I come from a strange background, but it's really quite scholarly; you should see the number of footnotes she has.

My formal education began at Liberty Elementary School, one of the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS for short. It still makes me think when I write postscripts to my postscripts). There I exhibited an early talent for messy handwriting, and a pretty good head for math. One day a week I went to a special program for "gifted" students. I think it was called the "Center for Advanced Studies" program, or something... at a number of schools. In fifth grade I was introduced to computing by taking a class in BASIC. It was awhile ago, and I wasn't impressed.

My middle school years were spent at Sterrett Classical Academy. Sounds pretty fancy, doesn't it? It's another one of the Pittsburgh Public schools, but it's a really good one. While there I attended "Computer Literacy" classes for all three years - except the last quarter. The school district decided that they wanted the computers for the high school, and thus declared that our class shouldn't exist. In fact, rumor at the time said that our class was declared to have never existed and was wiped from our transcripts. Having never had an urge to go and look at my transcript from that time, I can neither confirm nor deny those rumors. The class taught us the basics of using spread sheets, and interestingly enough, for at least one year I believe it was segregated by gender. I continued to go to gifted programs, this time at the Banksville Center. There I learned more interesting things, such as how to run most of the equipment needed for a small television studio, and learned a little more BASIC. I remained unimpressed. I also took up the cello, which for a time was nigh upon bigger than I was. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to go to the "Center for the Musically Talented" run by the school system. It was a great opportunity to learn about music. I learned lots of musical theory, most of which has fled my mind, learned to appreciate music more, picked up some ear training (solfeggio) of which the rudiments remain, and had a great time in my private lessons, which I took with Paul Critser who was both a great teacher and massively entertaining. I continued the lessons all through high school.

I attended Schenley High School, which is an excellent high school. There I made a number of friends and took a bunch more classes (what a surprise). I was quite the well rounded individual (in the activity sense; in the physical sense I was skinny as a stick), and was on the swim team and in the orchestra. I also participated on the Math League team and occasionally was in the band, (I played the flute for 4 months or so in the marching band, and later I played some of the bassoon parts on my cello- not in the marching band, though), and did various other things that I can't remember. I took my first "real" computer programming class there, where I learned PASCAL. I remained unimpressed. I did well enough, but it just wasn't very interesting. In fact, my senior year I dropped computer science (much to the dismay of the CAS co-ordinator, Dr. Dilts, who became so depressed after reworking my schedule to get me in the class and then discovering that I wasn't interested that he slumped on the table... Dr. Dilts... if you're out there, I came back to it; thanks for your effort!) in favor of taking an art class. Which was easier and quite possibly the right thing to have done considering how much I enjoyed PASCAL. My computer science teacher whose class I dropped requested that I make him an ashtray in the shape of New Jersey (which now that I've spent a summer there, I find quite appropriate), which I never got around to. I swear that my changing out of the class was not his fault. The art class, however, did suffice to help me to achieve my goal of becoming valedictorian. But on the big day I made an idiot of myself in front of two thousand people. There are two morals to that particular story: 1. don't make private jokes in your speech to keep yourself entertained. 2. never look at your best friend while making a speech in front of two thousand people, especially if the speech contains private jokes. I think that you can figure out the main points of the debacle from that.

After high school I went to Duke University after having the only question I really wanted to know answered by the Dean of Student Life.... "How bad are the bugs on campus?" Having been reassured that the worst pests on campus were the squirrels, I decided to go. (How was Dean Sue supposed to know that thanks to a roommate in an entomology class I'd have tons of bugs and spiders in my freezer? "The ice cream? Yeah, it's to the left of the really angry wasp.")

I arrived at Duke where I rapidly learned that no matter how small the fan, it'll work better if you stick it in the window than if you put it blowing on you. I lived on East campus in Jarvis. Jarvis was the only all female housing option, though given the composition of the people there at most times, you wouldn't know it. Jarvis was a great dorm, though from what I hear, the experience varied widely

My first week there, I went to the International House for pancakes (that's not a typo; each year the organization for international students hosted a pancake breakfast during orientation). My roommate, Megumi, was from Tokyo, and so she wanted to go. At the bus stop on the way home, I met Steve who was there because he liked pancakes. I got pancakes, and he didn't. Isn't it ironic, don't you think? Steve liked me for my hair and because I knew that William the Conquerer was originally called Guilliame le batard. I thought he was scruffy looking, but I was impressed that he knew almost as many digits of pi as I did.(Geek love!) After he gave up on trying to get me to go out on a weekend morning (weekends have mornings?), we started going out, and we've been together ever since. We got married in 2000.

When I arrived at Duke, I had no clue what I wanted to major in. I thought maybe math or perhaps psychology. However, upon earning my worst grade (by far) while at Duke in intro to psych (not to mention being so bored in class that I took up eating in class just to keep myself awake), I thought maybe not. Steve convinced me that I should give computer science another shot because Owen Astrachan, a really great prof, was going to be teaching it. Lacking anything better to do, I finally agreed. So I took the intro to computer science class and enjoyed it.

The next semester I was still undecided, but since Owen was teaching the next class, I decided to take it as well. Since I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, I decided to take the classes that would put me in the best situation for as many majors as I was interested in. So I ended up with Computer Science 2, Physics (E&M), Intro to circuit design, and Linear Algebra. That was a hard semester. I also started being a "cluster consultant," which meant that once a week I sat in the computer cluster in case anyone had problems with their computer science homework. Given that I had only taken one class at that point, I wasn't terribly useful. But it was fun.

The next semester, Owen was teaching a new course (Software Engineering), and I managed to get in. Since I lacked anything else that I really wanted to major in, I decided that I might as well major in Computer Science. I also began work as an actual TA; I was a lab TA for the intro computer science class. Still having this horrible compulsion that I should be active early on weekday mornings, I signed up to TA the 9:10 lab. No one else felt so compelled, so I taed it myself. Sometimes Owen stopped by, and sometimes the grad TA was there, but mostly it was just me. It was really scary, but it was fun. :) I learned to walk the fine line between admitting when you're wrong and pretending that you know what you're talking about.

That year I started trying to decide whether I wanted to go to grad school or not. I wasn't sure either way, but it seemed like a good thing to ponder, and there was no time like the present. So I applied for the CRA Distributed Mentor Project from CRA. And I got it, too. :) I got to work with Dr. Xiaobai Sun, also at Duke, for 10 weeks. I learned a number of things, including the fact that North Carolina is really, really hot during the summer (I had, after all, actually known this in the back of my head, but it didn't entirely sink in). I lived in an apartment on central campus with one of my best friends, Kelly Shaw, which was a lot of fun. I wasn't entirely sure if I wanted to go to grad school even after that, but I wasn't willing to rule it out, either.

The next year was a whirlwind of classes, TAing, and late night board games. I decided that I having given research a try, I should try working in industry. I wound up interning at Microsoft, where I worked in the Office program management group. Program managers are in charge of designing the products that are created and then coordinating how they are created. My project was how to allow people to access the knowledge base using a natural language interface. Yes, back in the dim and misty reaches of the past you used to be forced to use boolean queries. I spent the first two weeks learning about the state of the art in information retrieval and the last ten weeks coding up my solution. I really enjoyed the first two weeks and was not so excited about the last ten weeks. After pondering this for awhile, I decided to go to graduate school.

Since Steve and I wanted to go to the same graduate school, we wound up applying to 10 different graduate schools. I eventually wrote an article on the process. I visited a lot of places, met a lot of neat people, and eventually decided on the University of Washington because the academics were great, and the department was fantastically supportive. I remain very pleased by this choice.

I was lucky enough to get a Lucent Graduate Research Fellowship Program for Women grant, which in addition to giving me money while I was in graduate school, gave me a mentor and an internship. The internship in turn gave me a chance to live in scenic New Jersey. There I developed a new appreciation for not having to take a highway to get to work and for the last time had a steady supply of Booberry cereal (who wouldn't like a cereal that has marshmallows that turn your milk blue?).

Afterwards Steve and I headed to Seattle for school. Our route showed a decided lack of understanding of the Pythagorean theorem or any understanding of wanting to monotonically increase our progress. It went:

Note for those not from the US or Canada: it is not necessary to go through Canada even once to get from Durham to Seattle.

Grad school was a whole more to follow...


Rachel Pottinger
E-mail Address: rap [at] cs [dot] ubc [dot] ca
Office Location: ICICS/CS 345
Phone: (604)822-0436
Fax:(604)822-5485
Postal/Courier address:
The Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia
201-2366 Main Mall
Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z4
Canada