Geek turns on charm to advance girl power
By Matt Berger
(IDG) -- On a recent June morning, Ellen Spertus hesitates before opening the door to her Honda Accord. It's not her first choice of transport to make the 20-mile drive from her San Francisco home to a middle school across the Bay, but her electric car is in the shop.
Dressed in a cream-colored dress, brown sandals and thick glasses, the computer science professor would rather be driving her other car, a General Motors EV-1. The combustion engine in her Honda, she says, is a technology dinosaur kept alive by misinformation fed to the public by big car makers.
Air pollution is just one issue that gets Spertus fired up. She is one of nine self-proclaimed "geeks" competing for the title of Sexiest Geek Alive, a contest that has attracted code slingers and comic book fans who vie for the title. After beating out more than 10,000 rivals in an online contest, Spertus will face off against eight other regional winners in the national finals on June 20 at a broadband technology conference in San Jose, California.
Judging the contenders are geeks-made-good such as Mikki Halpin, author of "The Geek Handbook," and they are looking to select a self-aware techie who embodies the idea that geeks can be chic. Spertus says she fits that bill, although the main reason she remains keen on all the geeky attention is to bring some publicity to her work with women in technology.
"You may notice there's fewer women in the high tech industry then men," she says.
On this June morning she will try to persuade a class of 20 teenage girls that writing computer code is fun and a potential career path. Her visit is part of a program called Tech Bridge, funded by the National Science Foundation to teach girls from different backgrounds about careers in computer programming.
Such skills have paid off for Spertus. She earned her bachelors', masters', and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has worked for Microsoft Corp.'s research lab. She has also acquired enough Star Trek trivia to pass the 40-question test for becoming a Sexiest Geek finalist.
She is soon huddled around a computer with five girls who are showing off a program they have written. An animated boat scoots across the monitor before it is gobbled up by a tornado. One bashful girl explains how they created the scene by typing lines of code that translate into commands.
The conversation shifts to other topics, like how some of these 13- and 14-year-olds expect to be the first in their family to attend college, how they spend most of the time on the Internet chatting, and why one girl was getting a bad grade in physical education class. "I got bad grades in P.E. and I turned out OK," Spertus says, reassuringly.
The school bell rings and Spertus is back in her Honda and on her way to Oakland's Mills College where she meets one of her graduate students who is working on a robotics project. Robots aside, Spertus reminisces with her student about how she reached such geekdom, including a spell at the first computer camp 20 years ago, and rubbing shoulders with famous MIT classmates like Free Software Foundation guru Richard Stallman.
Other celebrity tech meetings in her life: "I sat next to Linus Torvalds at a dinner party once," she says. "He had his kid with him and I helped him with his dinner. I figure that's a contribution to the open source community."
Spertus pauses from a Web search for robot parts to show off the dress she is having made for the geek finals. A search on EBay turns up an image of a fitted corset, fashioned from what looks like printed circuit boards. A similar outfit is on its way to her from Australia, she says, "assuming it doesn't get stuck in customs."
To complete the outfit she navigates to a Web site for the movie "Miss Congeniality," where actress Sandra Bullock is posing sexily in combat boots and an evening gown, with a gun holstered to her exposed thigh. It's the look Spertus is going for, only a little less geeky.
She points to the gun. "I'm thinking of strapping a slide rule to my leg," she says. "I haven't decided on shoes yet."
Her graduate student suggests sticking with the Bullock theme and wearing combat boots.
"Remember," Spertus says, dismissing the idea. "I want glamorous."
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