One would assume that growing up in Communist China may have reduced Xiaobo Sharon Hu’s chances of becoming an engineer; but, in fact, the opposite is true.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Chinese society embraced the idea that “women hold up half the sky” and gender equality became a part of everyday life.
“Of all the things Communist China was known for, the one that I remember was how women were encouraged to ‘be like men,’ which translated to equal work and education opportunities for my parents and me,” Hu says.
Both her mom and dad were engineers and Hu says that seeing them both go to work each morning left a lasting impression on her own career path.
“I never thought of it as abnormal to think I should be an engineer,” Hu, now professor of computer science and engineering, says.
“I always thought that if I can do this, then I should do it. It was never a question of if, but how.”
It wasn’t until Hu started at Tianjin University that she realized a disparity in the ratio of male to female students in her courses. And then while she was pursuing her master’s degree at Polytechnic University of New York and her doctorate at Purdue University, she saw an even larger gender gap as well as stereotypes within the field.
In 1996, Hu was hired at the University of Notre Dame as an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. She recalls that for several years she was the only female faculty member in the department.
“There are few women in this field altogether and it wasn’t until six or seven years ago that the computer science field began heading in the right direction.”
Ever since, Hu has worked to ensure that the number of female engineers multiply.
“Just recently, a former female Ph.D. student became an assistant professor at Virginia Tech. It gives me a sense of pride to know that I am helping the field grow and diversify, just from mentoring and working with my students and junior colleagues,” says Hu.
The students who work with Hu conduct projects on the simulation, design and analysis of low-energy computing systems. Hu and her team look at everything from controlling software energy usage — like adjusting background programs to operate at a less demanding setting — to considering how the architecture of a device could be more effectively organized.
“Users don’t want to compromise battery life and performance. They aren’t willing to look at low-resolution images or video, but they also don’t want to be constantly charging their cell phones to view content,” she says. “Our work focuses on striking a balance between saving energy while not sacrificing computer performance.”
Even her approach to research is going against the grain by specializing in hardware-software co-design. Hu says that typically women will be found on the software side of research, but that her work benefits from both perspectives.
“My experience with both hardware and software has given me a different perspective, which creates opportunities for me to solve problems in a new way and has led me to create my own concepts and designs.”
Those concepts have led to patents and licenses that address a variety of computing challenges. Hu’s research is being used to reduce energy consumption of various systems and can be applied to deep learning engines, image processing and more.
“I have worked on so many things at Notre Dame, but one of my proudest accomplishments was my work with the Graduate School and being able to better prepare students for life after school,” says Hu.
Serving as the associate dean of professional development, Hu started a course that was created out of the need to teach graduate students technical and scientific writing skills. She also worked as the senior assistant vice provost for internationalization and helped implement the International Summer Undergraduate Research Experience program, or iSURE, in an effort to recruit top international students through hands-on experience with ongoing science and engineering research projects.
“I want to promote the great programs Notre Dame has to offer,” says Hu. “I really want to make the University recognizable throughout the global community and show everyone just how great Notre Dame students truly are.”
Aside from supporting students, Hu also wants to be a role model to her daughter, the way her own mother was.
“My daughter was raised watching me go to work as an engineering faculty member since she was born,” says Hu. “Now that she is 24, she also doesn’t question what she is capable of, but instead wants to know how she can find a way to balance it all.”
— Produced by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications.