Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today we’re talking with Roberta Sabin ‘90 Ph.D., computer science, about her career as a professor and her recent teaching excursion to Malawi on a Fulbright Scholar grant.
Q: You were the first woman to graduate from UMBC with a Ph.D. in computer science. What did that feel like?
A: It was great, and it’s something I’m really proud of. It was an effort of myself and my family.
I feel like it was a quality degree that I’ve really been able to build on – the beginning of my research career was in the same area my dissertation was in and I was able to attend conferences and meet people from around the world.
Q: What is your favorite memory of UMBC?
A: My dissertation defense was pretty vivid. I spent many many many hours here working on my proposal and the final defense, and I remember the faculty – especially Dr. Samuel Lomonaco – being very supportive and helpful. I also remember that before I presented, I was puttering around and someone asked me about the coffee, because I was the only woman. It was a public defense so not all the people knew me. It was a definite indication of the time.
Q: How did it feel to be awarded the Fulbright? Why Malawi?
A: My motto is “try and try again.” I had tried in 2004 for a Fulbright to Vietnam and got close. I’ve had a lifelong interest in Africa, so I thought applying again for a Fulbright to Africa would be a good way to use my time after retiring from Loyola.
Q: What was your time like in Malawi?
A: We were there for one semester, from September of 2013 through February of 2014. It is truly a different world. It’s rich in many ways, especially regarding the quality of the people – they’re friendly, hardworking, and peace-loving – but it lacks natural resources like oil, coal, etc. so it’s very poor. College is a privilege and the students take it very seriously.
I’ve kept in touch with a number of the students since I left – I’ve heard from about 15 or 20. It’s wonderful to be able to continue a relationship and I’d love to go back.
Q: As you reflect on your career, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and why UMBC was your school of choice?
A: I’m a native Baltimorean and a product of an all-women education (secondary school and college). I was always interested in math and politics, and at one time thought I might be president. I got a lot of encouragement [growing up] – there was an assumption that women could do anything, and that underlined my whole education.
I taught secondary level mathematics for about 15 years. During that time I took a course in programming that was offered by the school system and was bitten by the excitement of programming. I also realized there was a tremendous need for instructors in computer science (this was about 1980), so I enrolled at Hopkins for a Master’s in just that. At that time I was teaching at Coppin State with Dr. Hrabowski – he was my dean, he hired me, so I saw him regularly. I completed my Master’s at Hopkins and was then recruited, in a sense, by Loyola to teach computer science. The big deciding factor to come to UMBC was Loyola offering to support me while I got my Ph.D.
Non-traditional students like me were welcomed [at UMBC]; they made my time here as smooth as possible. It was a stressful time for me – by then I was married and had two children under the age of six.
Q: What advice would you give to UMBC students now?
A: Computer science and teaching make an unbeatable combination. There are continuous changes and intellectual challenges [in computer science], and it’s a lively and active professional group. Plus, technology is so needed. People who are interested in communicating about technology are needed and that’s what teaching is all about. Especially if you’re female – students need to see young women who are excited about that.