A Memorial Minute for Andrea P. Danyluk

Headshot of Andrea DanylukApril 13, 2022

Andrea Pohoreckyj Danyluk, the Mary A. and William Wirt Warren Professor of Computer Science, Emerita, passed away on March 3, 2022. She was 59. Andrea was an inspiring colleague and selfless friend.

Raised on Long Island, Andrea graduated from Vassar College in 1984 having majored in Mathematics and Computer Science. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1992. There, she worked in the field of Machine Learning. After holding a research position at NYNEX she came to Williams in 1994 as the first woman hired into the faculty of Computer Science.

Andrea was an exceptionally dedicated, talented, and generous colleague. By any measure, her contributions to our department were enormous. She was tremendously effective and hard-working, a collaborator on department projects large and small, a supervisor of countless student research projects, a creative teacher and mentor, and a tireless advocate for broadening participation in computer science. Beyond all of those laudable contributions, she brought two aspects that were harder to measure, but just as valuable: a joy in her work and a sense of shared purpose.

Andrea energetically threw herself into teaching a diverse palette of intellectually engaging courses across our curriculum. She proved herself a generalist—teaching programming, data structures, the theory of computation, robotics, cognitive science, AI, and, of course, Machine Learning. Indeed, Andrea was the first to offer many courses now commonplace in the CS curriculum. Andrea had the knack for being at the right place at the right time.

Andrea worked with Joe Cruz and Kris Kirby to develop the Cognitive Science program, one of the department’s early and enduring multidisciplinary collaborations. Safa Zaki reflected on her contributions: “[s]he approached everything like we were a team and it made us one. [We] co-advised several theses together and I really learned from watching her go all out for every single student.” What an ambassador for computer science!

Those who worked with Andrea had the pleasure of witnessing first-hand the truly remarkable effect she had on her students. Andrea brought to the classroom not just a great appreciation and passion for the material, but also a sense of playfulness in discovery. Tasks that might otherwise have been mundane or tedious became opportunities for shameless geeking-out and delight. With Steve Freund, she added an Angry Birds theme to an entire semester of introductory programming projects. In other courses, students built Lego robots that blew out candles and made burritos.

Andrea was an organizational wizard, of sorts. Over the years, we learned that No desk calendar was too big, and Every task should have its own color. Frankly, more than a few of us took a thrill in messing with her bookshelf organization.

In collaboration with Kim Bruce and Tom Murtagh, Andrea helped to design a new version of our introductory course focusing on interactions in Java. The collaboration resulted in a textbook, Java: an Eventful Approach, that was hugely popular at Williams and many other institutions for two decades. Their approach anticipated the way applications would be written for interactive devices we enjoy today.

Tom recalls that Andrea had two special roles in their textbook project. First, she was the mediator. She could always cheerfully guide her collaborators to a compromise when there was a disagreement about some issue. (And there were a few!) Second, she was an extraordinary editor. To avoid adding stress to the lives of her students and colleagues, Andrea always used a green—not red—pen when editing or correcting written work. Kim and Tom saw more than their fair share of green ink. Tom recalls that most of the pages of his chapters looked like “a healthy lawn” after Andrea was finished. Indeed, her editorial talents were missed as we wrote this Memorial Minute!

Andrea’s advanced classes—Artificial Intelligence and her tutorial on Machine Learning—were particularly transformative for our majors. Many graduates of those courses are now valued researchers and contributors in Machine Learning. Anna Neufeld, a student of Andrea’s tutorial, came back to co-teach the course in Andrea’s last semester. Anna remarked, “Andrea’s machine learning tutorial had a meticulously designed syllabus with a set of topics that rivaled any graduate school class. The assignments included a carefully selected mix of difficult proofs, implementations, studies, and writing assignments, including one about ethics in AI that left a particular mark on me. I found myself gaining confidence week after week, becoming more willing to think critically and give answers that stretched beyond what was in the textbook. I cannot overstate the importance of Andrea as my personal role model.” When Anna returned to Williams, the mentoring simply continued: “Before teaching alongside Andrea, I identified as someone who loves to teach and cares about students. But seeing the behind-the-scenes work that went into Andrea’s tutorial made me realize that Andrea’s love for teaching and dedication to her students was on a completely different level. I am truly forever grateful for the experience of getting to learn from Andrea.” None of this, of course, is surprising to us. She took pride in knowing all but a handful of departmental graduates and considered that community to be her extended family.

In 2021, the College recognized Andrea’s stellar teaching career by awarding her the Nelson Bushnell Prize for excellence in teaching and writing.

In her research, Andrea particularly enjoyed thinking about applications of machine learning. Her decades-long, continuous work with thesis students was impressive: from automatically annotating violin scores, to story generation, to automated identification of individual spotted salamanders found in Hopkins Forest. She was a model for research professionalism in our department.

It is not surprising that people turned to Andrea to work on big projects. Over her career at Williams, Andrea was appointed or elected to just about every major committee—and chaired several of them, including the Committee on Educational Policy, the Faculty Steering Committee, and the Committee on Priorities and Resources. Andrea served three terms on the Committee on Appointments and Promotions, was on the Coordinating Committee for the College’s 2007 accreditation, the 2009 Presidential Search Committee, and the Task Force on Faculty Planning. She was a long-time Marshal for Trustees and Honorary Degree recipients.

Tom Kohut recalled Andrea’s work on the CEP during the time he was Dean of Faculty: “Andrea was an incredibly effective, thoughtful, and courageous member of the committee, whose work was not uncontroversial. She was so good in fact that I asked her to chair the CEP the next year when innovations like the Signature Tutorial, plus the course load reduction were to be implemented.” Tom went on to say: “Andrea was simply amazing as CEP chair, managing to be a wonderful team player. It’s frankly incredible that the CEP was able first to get those innovations passed by 60% of the faculty, and, finally, under Andrea’s leadership to implement those innovations along with a course load reduction all within the span of two years. That wouldn’t have happened without Andrea.” Laurie Heatherington reflected “She is the single best committee member I have ever had the pleasure of working with. She was wise, compassionate, brave, and able to analyze problems and solutions from myriad angles. Also, she was indefatigable. She simply refused to stop until the work was done.”

Among Andrea’s selfless contributions to our community was the work she did as Acting Dean and then as Associate Dean of the Faculty, following the Great Recession of 2008. In one of the most thankless administrative roles one could imagine taking on, Andrea’s work was extraordinary. In a single year she quickly absorbed an incredible amount of data and history, worked with chairs to set priorities, facilitated difficult discussions, represented the concerns of the administration to faculty, and those of faculty to the administration.

Laurie Heatherington reminisces, “that she did all this while being a terrific mother to small children, at a time when the college was perhaps less ‘family-friendly’ than it is now, is a testament to her legacy.”

Andrea’s impact on computer science extended far beyond our campus. She was a member of the ACM/IEEE Steering Committee of the 2013 Joint Task Force on Computing Curricula. In 2017, she served as a co-chair on the ACM Education Board’s Data Science Task Force, charged with identifying computing-specific contributions that would best support data science. These high-profile initiatives have shaped curricula around the world.

In addition to her many contributions to computer science education writ large, Andrea had a particular passion for broadening access to computer science and was involved with numerous groups at Williams and beyond.

At Williams, she co-advised the Women in CS student group. Every fall, Andrea took students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. (Grace Hopper, of course, was another Vassar alum.) In her typical overachieving ways, Andrea not only shepherded students to the conference, she wrote letters of support, and helped to make every gathering a Signature Adventure.

In 2018 she took a leave for three semesters to become the Global Director for Northeastern’s Align Program, a nationwide effort to broaden participation in our field by enabling non-technical students to earn Master’s Degrees in Computer Science.

Andrea served for many years as a member of the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women, including its Steering Committee. More recently, she served on the CRA Board of Directors and was co-chair of the CRA’s Committee on Widening Participation. In all of these roles, Andrea organized and participated in mentoring sessions at conferences and worked to obtain funding and research opportunities for undergraduate women. She also gave presentations on work-life balance, a topic she found both important and ironic, given her own predisposition to work long hours and say “yes” to everything.

Just weeks ago, she was awarded the CRA’s A. Nico Habermann Award, given to a person who has made unusual contributions to the success of underrepresented members in the computing research community. This award cites, in part: “Danyluk was an amazing champion for research at primarily undergraduate institutions and encouraged underrepresented students at these institutions across the United States to consider research careers. Through her numerous efforts, she helped introduce thousands of undergraduate students to computing research. She was essential in making not only Williams, but many computing programs welcoming environments for students and faculty.”

To many of us, of course, Andrea was a dear friend with whom they could share a cup of coffee, a chat, or a walk. With her family, she loved to hike and, together they collected national parks. She beamed when discussing Acadia, her home-away-from-home, in Maine.

Andrea Danyluk was a catalytic force: time with her made our work lighter and made us more responsible. She helped to make each of us a better version of ourselves. And, in the end, when we reflected on our joint successes, we somehow only remembered times of laughter.

Jeannie Albrecht, Duane Bailey, Stephen Freund, Bill Lenhart, and Tom Murtagh