Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Post on Mary Lou Jepsen for Ada Lovelace Day

It's Ada Lovelace Day! No, I didn't forget (but I nearly did)! Wondering what it is? Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Here's my Ada Lovelace Day post:

Last year, I wrote about one of my first technical mentors, Lee McIntyre. This year I thought I'd write about someone I didn't personally know, but who is having a world-wide impact and who is behind some of the latest innovations in laptop technology: Mary Lou Jepsen.

I first heard Mary Lou Jepsen speak at the Grace Hopper Conference in 2008. I'd heard about One Laptop per Child (OLPC) but didn't know much about the company or Jepsen herself.

If you haven't heard about it, OLPC is a project to create a low-cost, cheap, durable laptop that could be used by kids in developing countries. The laptops are networked to enable communication over long distances. Here's their mission statement:

"To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future."

Jepsen's talk was inspiring, and we certainly did see examples of children engaged in their own education through OLPC. For instance, Jepsen talked about a young girl who started a 'laptop hospital' in Egypt for her friends, repairing their OLPCs if they got broken.

Not only did Jepsen succeed with her vision, but she was also able to make technical innovations along the way, particularly with the screen of the laptop. She used her background in Holography and Optical Science (she has a Master of Science in the former from the MIT Media Lab and a PhD in the latter from Brown University) to invent sunlight-readable display technology and co-invented the OLPC's ultra-low power management system. At the time, the XO OLPC was the lowest-power laptop ever made. You can even charge your OLPC by turning a crank, which is useful in places without easy access to electricity!

There are other ways Mary Lou Jepsen is inspiring particularly to me. Her degrees in physics-related fields gave me confidence that someone with a background in physics (me) could study Computer Science and be successful in this field. She's also an entrepreneur, having founded four companies prior to working on OLPC, and at least one after (Pixel Qi). I had my own business during my undergraduate years, so it was cool to know that entrepreneurial skills are useful and valued in technology! Jepsen also works on socially-minded projects, and it's wonderful to see that in technology, you can apply your creativity and skills to projects like this and still gain professionally.

What's she working on now? I was so happy to learn that at her new company, Jepsen is working on a screen that has an E-ink AND regular laptop screen mode. One device can do both! I've been waiting for this for years. If you'd like to learn more, check out Mary Lou Jepsen's blog.


Tinky said...

It sounds as though she does good work in all senses of the word. An excellent choice. I have loved learning about new people from the Ada posts, including this one.

Kate said...

Cool, glad you enjoyed it! :)