Renowned Computer Scientist Richard Ladner ’65 Earns National Science Board Public Service Award

Saint Mary’s congratulates distinguished computer scientist Richard Ladner ’65, PhD, who has been named a 2020 recipient of the National Science Board’s (NSB) Public Service Award. Ladner is a Professor Emeritus in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, where he has been on the faculty since 1971. The award goes to individuals who have made substantial contributions to increasing public understanding of science and engineering. Ladner’s research focuses on developing technological tools to aid people with disabilities, including making sign language communication possible through wireless cell phone technology. We asked Ladner to discuss his career and how his time as a math major at Saint Mary’s enabled him to pursue his passions.

You can join the National Science Foundation and NSB as they celebrate this year’s award winners and discuss the value of science for public benefit, and the importance of diversity, public-private collaboration, and entrepreneurship, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Eastern time on YouTube here.

We asked Ladner to discuss his career and how his time as a math major at Saint Mary’s enabled him to pursue his passions.

What inspired you to get into this field?

My parents, Emil and Mary, were Deaf and fluent in American Sign Language. From personal experience I saw the barriers they face in their lives and how technology might help them. In the 1970s, they got their first TTY with an acoustic modem that allowed them to text over existing phone lines. I got one for myself so I could communicate with them by text at their home in Berkeley from my home in Seattle. Before that, we relied on snail mail. After many years of doing mathematics and theoretical computer science, I decided to move into research on technology for people with disabilities. At the same time, I realized that more needed to be done to include those same people in the actual design and implementation of these access technologies. I talk about this in an article because I'm asked about this transition so often.  

How did Saint Mary’s help prepare you for your career?

My time at Saint Mary’s was from 1961 to ’65, mostly as a commuter. I was a math major, which I really enjoyed. I was fortunate to have had a wonderful class taught by Brother Alfred Brousseau in what is now called Discrete Mathematics that also involved a lot of algorithms. There was no computer science field at that time. Anyone who knew Brother Alfred knows about his passion for Fibonacci numbers (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ... each number after the first two is the sum of the previous two). He was a founder of the Fibonacci Association and founding editor of the Fibonacci Quarterly journal. For some crazy reason, I asked him to supervise my senior project, which turned out to be a project on Fibonacci identities. He asked me to solve a problem that has never been solved before. I made some progress but never fully solved the problem. Indeed, it might not be solvable completely anyway. I think I got a B+ on the project because I turned it in late, but not because my partial solution was not complete. 

That was my first taste of research, and I got the bug. I can't tell you how many technical problems I worked on during my career, but only a few have I completely solved. I have to thank Saint Mary’s for a great education that included doing research. Strange to say, but Fibonacci numbers have entered my research several times, just because they are such a common phenomenon. One of the research papers that used Fibonacci numbers has been cited more than 1,600 times. 

How did Saint Mary’s help you discover your passions?

Saint Mary’s helped me define mathematics as my career path. After Saint Mary’s, I went to UC Berkeley to study mathematics. This was in the late 1960s, which was a very turbulent time with the civil rights movement, the VietNam war, and the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Berkeley was the center of many of the protests. Coming from Saint Mary’s, which is relatively quiet compared to Berkeley, was quite a shock at the time. At the same time, I think my liberal arts courses in history, philosophy, religion, and Great Books that I took at Saint Mary’s helped steady me. I had the context for the protests and could understand their meaning. Saint Mary’s gave me a great foundation in social justice for the advocacy and program work that I do that led to this award.

What’s your advice for students in pursuing their interests?

Having worked with students for 50 years I have given a lot of advice. Most of that advice is very specific relating to the student’s situation. It is difficult to give advice that is generally applicable. Even when I give specific advice, I always follow with, “but what do you think?” 

Generally, I think a successful career has two major components: skills and passion. Passion gets you to learn and improve your skills, while skills give you a way to realize your passion. Both skills and passion must be nurtured mutually throughout life. Without learning new skills, your passion may wane. Without passion, you won’t be motivated to learn new skills. 

There is still a problem: How do you get started in this virtuous cycle? I think a good liberal arts education that includes skills development is a great way to start. This is the kind of education that Saint Mary’s offers. 

What does this award mean to you?

It is wonderful to be recognized for making science relevant to the public, not just for scientific achievements. Science would wither in the United States without the support of the government through the National Science Foundation and other agencies. That support would not be there without people who understand and can communicate the benefits of scientific research. In my case, the award is for my advocacy and programs for including people with disabilities in computer science.  

Note: Ladner’s twin brother, David, also graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1965 as a psychology major. He died in May 2012 at the age of 69.