SURF-IT Week One: Research Rocks!

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, July 3rd,  2014 — This summer’s 10 SURF-IT Fellows got an inside look at the life and research efforts of one of the program’s mentors this week during SURF-IT’s first lunchtime seminar. Postdoc researcher Birgit Penzenstadler works with computer science professors Bill Tomlinson and Debra Richardson, and mentors undergraduate student Joseph Mehrabi. She told the group she never expected research to be her calling.

Penzenstadler's master's thesis led to a relevation: "I learned 
research was more interesting than I thought."

Penzenstadler grew up in a small village in Germany and after finishing secondary school, traveled through Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. before starting university studies. 

During that time, she worked at a book shop, and did internships at BMW and a photography studio, all in an effort to figure out where her passions lay. She learned several lessons during those months, she said, including the importance of learning about other cultures, using available networks, and understanding organizational hierarchies.

She ended up in a media and design undergraduate program which, surprisingly, was heavily computer-science focused. She never questioned her choice, she told the students; she just concentrated on the task at hand.  “I never actually wondered if I should be doing this; I just stuck with my decision because I’m a stubborn German,” she said.

Her interest was piqued by a software engineering class. “There are a lot of miscommunications that can happen in software development and by doing good software engineering and good requirements engineering you can avoid that.”

Then, a master’s thesis on software product lines led to an unexpected revelation. “I learned research was more interesting than I had thought,” she said. “If I could find something that nobody else had before, I could pass that on to the rest of the world. That would be such a cool thing.”

That led to a doctoral program at the Technical University of Munich, which fortuitously included close collaboration with industry partners. Penzenstadler was hooked. “It’s nice to see your research applied within a company. Instead of building a cool system, you’re making the method better for other people to build a cool system. [When you’re in school] that sometimes is frustrating but then when you see it applied, it’s very rewarding,” she said.

After receiving her doctorate, Penzenstadler sought to combine her research skills with her passion for the environment. An online search for more information led her to Tomlinson’s book, “Greening through IT,” and the die was cast. “That’s the guy I wanted to work with.”

She now focuses on software engineering for sustainability. “What can be done in software engineering to make the system greener?” Software, hardware, data centers, websites: all are ripe for research and have potential to improve environmental sustainability.
In closing, Penzenstadler told the students she wanted them to take away a few lessons: 
•    Traveling teaches you how to deal with people and how to deal with yourself
•    Ask people for a chat, regardless of the subject 
•    You can make more happen than you think 
•    If we give environmental sustainability more priority, then we’ll eventually succeed in saving the planet.

And last but certainly not least: “Research is rewarding work. In short, it rocks.”