Penn Engineering honors prof Barbara Liskov


Liskov was one of first women in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in computer science


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The Harold Pender Award given to MIT professor Barbara Liskov on Thursday.

Photo by Aditya Vijay


The Penn community reached outside its borders to honor an eminent leader in science yesterday.

The Harold Pender Award — initiated in 1972 and given to engineers not affiliated with the University by the faculty of Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering — was presented to computer scientist Barbara Liskov for her work in programming languages, programming methodology and distributed systems. Yesterday’s presentation of the Pender Award — considered the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ highest honor — was celebrated with a lecture by Liskov herself, entitled “The Power of Abstraction.”

Engineering Dean Eduardo Glandt described the Pender Award as a “beautiful ritual of our school.”

Liskov has earned a place in this ritual through her renowned innovation in computer science, Glandt explained in his opening speech at the event. Her work in programming methodology led to the invention of data abstraction, a fundamental tool in the sciences, particularly computer science. Software system designers use layers of abstraction as a way of streamlining a program and delivering clear functionality out of a mass of interacting technologies.

Liskov and her group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also designed and implemented the pioneer programming language to support data abstraction, called CLU.

“It’s extremely gratifying and really exciting,” Liskov said of her research’s lasting significance.

Following Glandt’s address, Computer and Information Science professor Val Tannen introduced Liskov, whose ideas, he said, “are woven into the fabric of every programming tool used by any information technology professional. She is truly one of the pillars of computer science.”

Liskov earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in computer science — one of the first women in the country to receive that distinction in the field. In 1972, she joined the faculty of MIT.

Michele Grab, director of Advancing Women in Engineering, believes that Liskov should be a role model for all Engineering and computer science students at Penn, particularly women.

“I know that Dr. Liskov believes, as I do, that getting more women in computer science and engineering is a critical issue and one that requires multifaceted solutions,” Grab said.

Liskov, for her part, remains curious about, and hopeful for, the future of programming languages and software development.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” she said in an interview after her lecture. “There are still lots of problems and lots of opportunities.”

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