Faculty Profile: Nanette Veilleux

September 12, 2014

As a scientist, Veilleux has an educational philosophy based on data. She strives to create community among her students and encourages support systems not as a fringe benefit, but because research suggests that supportive environments empower women to excel in traditionally unpopular fields.

"Although computer science has traditionally not been a popular profession for women to enter, the number of women at Simmons who have pursued the field has increased from a handful to about 50 in the past few years," says Professor Nanette Veilleux. "While women typically pursue service-oriented careers, many do not perceive computer science as a field that gives back to the community or recognize that they can author technology. Yet apps and technology enhance people's lives. Women's perspectives are needed to develop the next blockbuster app."

Internationally renowned for her expertise in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education, as well as in basic computational linguistics research, Veilleux recently spent a semester abroad on a Fulbright Grant teaching students at Rwanda's Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. Veilleux returned to SLIS with a promotion to full professor and the new role as Associate Dean of Research at SLIS. She is also the Director of the Undergraduate Program in Computer Science and Informatics. "Simmons prides itself on teaching and supporting faculty scholarship," says Veilleux. In her new role, she will examine faculty research opportunities and challenges. Having worked on six-figure research grants, Veilleux will explore building collaborations with leading research institutions to increase grant funding for faculty projects.

The undergraduate Computer Science and Informatics Program will capitalize on the recent resurgence of interest in computer science. The department includes four undergraduate majors, including computer science, information technology, health informatics, and web development and design. "Within a year of graduation, all of our undergraduate program's students who seek employment are employed," says Veilleux.

For others, Simmons' 3+1 Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Master of Library and Information Program provides graduate opportunities for undergraduate women who are interested in computer science but are drawn to careers in medical, engineering, and scientific libraries. The program reflects the multidisciplinary integration of graduate-level librarianship and information technology.

In addition to opportunities for undergraduates to access library science courses, SLIS students will continue to be able to take computer science courses. While SLIS students can take up to two courses outside the school through the WISE consortium or another program to apply toward their degree, the Simmons undergraduate computer science and informatics courses can also be applied to their graduate degree.

In the near future, Veilleux also plans to use the new Collaboratory to host TED Talks screenings and discussions, as well as sponsor a Hackathon. In conjunction with SLIS, the School of Management, and the statistics faculty in CAS's Math department, Veilleux is developing a Big Data curriculum that is expected to launch in 2015.

When she is not teaching two sessions of introductory computer science classes during the fall semester along with her other SLIS responsibilities, she is busy with several research projects that total more than $1 million in grant funding. With the help of a few undergraduates, her research explores how to engage female undergraduate students in STEM education. She also investigates prosody, which examines intonation, cadence, and emphasis in speech. Veilleux is currently working on a proposal to examine the differences in how people perceive tone.

"I care not what you say, but how you say it," says Veilleux when she discusses her research in prosody, which she describes as "a provocative research area because speech draws people together." While voice recognition apps have improved over time, there are areas worth additional studies to "identify the fine shades of meaning in words," says Veilleux, such as the difference between uncertainty and dismay. At the Boston University-MIT-Simmons Prosody Lab, Veilleux has worked for twenty years with academics and linguists to understand prosody's nuances and provide research that can be used for applications.

"Simmons specializes in nurturing and empowering women in fields and places where they are ignored or forgotten," says Veilleux. She personifies the College's mission by working on the board of directors for Transition House, a Cambridge-based domestic-violence agency that provides emergency shelter and education programs for women.

As a scientist, Veilleux has an educational philosophy based on data. She strives to create community among her students and encourages support systems not as a fringe benefit, but because research suggests that supportive environments empower women to excel in traditionally unpopular fields. Her research also suggests the importance of showing students that they can master skills they perceive as difficult.

"People will say they are not good at math. Yet they will not say they are not good at reading. Both skills are equally difficult to master. At Simmons, we try to break the barriers down about incorrect perceptions," says Veilleux. "We've demonstrated that we can empower and nurture women to pursue their passions. Simmons creates a haven where women are embraced for their strengths by encouraging community and belonging. I look forward to sharing our philosophy at SLIS."

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer