Computing pioneer to receive honorary U-M doctorate

Lynn Conway is a leader in the microchip design revolution that made cell phones and laptops possible, and an internationally-recognized advocate for transgender rights.

Lynn Conway, Emerita Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, speaks at a U-M Workshop on Nano and Micro Manufacturing. Enlarge
Lynn Conway, Emerita Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, speaks at a U-M Workshop on Nano and Micro Manufacturing. Photo: Joseph Xu

Forty years after her paradigm-shifting work in microchip design and education, Lynn Conway will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree at Winter Commencement 2018 on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.

Conway, U-M professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science, is one of four respected leaders in the fields of engineering, English, business and academic medicine who are scheduled to receive honorary degrees. She will also deliver the commencement address at 2 p.m. on Dec. 16 at the Crisler Center.

She is internationally recognized for her transgender advocacy and her significant contributions to computer science. These include the development of a unified structural methodology that demystified the silicon chip design process and triggered the very-large-scale integration (VLSI) revolution in Silicon Valley in the late 1970s.

Conway was born in Mount Vernon, New York. While she was raised as a boy, she identified as a girl from a young age. After earning her Bachelor of Science degree in 1962 and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering degree in 1963 from Columbia University, she joined IBM Research. In 1965, she invented dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS), a method to issue multiple out-of-order instructions per machine cycle, a fundamental breakthrough in computer architecture.

In sharing her personal story, Conway tells how IBM fired her in 1968 as she began her gender transition. After her transition, she established a new identity and became a successful woman engineer, working first at Memorex Corp. and then at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where she did her VLSI systems work.

Many thousands of chip designers learned their craft from “Introduction to VLSI Systems,” which Conway co-authored with California Institute of Technology professor Carver Mead. Later, as assistant director for strategic computing at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, she created the meta-architecture and led the planning of the Strategic Computing Initiative, a major research program aimed at building a technology base for the development of machine intelligence.

Conway joined U-M’s faculty in 1985, with a research focus on visual communications and control. As an associate dean in the College of Engineering, she contributed to numerous research and instructional initiatives, including the building of the Media Union, and retired from the university in 1998.

The following year, as computer historians began uncovering her role in DIS development, she decided to share her transgender history. Since then, Conway has worked to protect and expand the rights of transgender people and to illuminate and normalize gender variance and gender transition processes through her widely accessed website.

Conway, who lives with her engineer husband, Charles Rogers, is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Among other accolades, she is the recipient of the Franklin Institute John Price Wetherill Medal, the University of Pennsylvania Harold Pender Award, the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Achievement Award, the Society of Women Engineers National Achievement Award, the Computer Pioneer Award of the IEEE Computer Society, the Computer History Museum Fellow Award and the James Clerk Maxwell Medal of the IEEE and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Also receiving honorary degrees are Rita Dove, Doctor of Fine Arts; James Hackett, Doctor of Laws; and Elizabeth Nabel, Doctor of Science.

The degrees are pending approval by the Board of Regents at its meeting Thursday, October 18.

This story was adapted from an original article posted in the University Record. View it here. 

November 22, 2020 : New York Times

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