Christina Boucher

PhD 2010

Christina Boucher with her dogChristina Boucher is a true Renaissance woman. In her doctoral research, she devised computational methods to identify subsequences of DNA. For her decidedly lower-tech hobby, she threw pots at the Waterloo Potters Workshop. Active in student politics, she also helped build the Graduate Student Association's Standing Committee on Women's Issues, and at her urging the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science set up a Gender Issues Task Force. 

Boucher completed her undergraduate degree in computer science at Waterloo and her master's at McGill University before returning to Waterloo to do her PhD. She studied Bioinformatics and theoretical computer science with advisors Dan Brown and Prabhakar Ragde. 

Bioinformatics is the study of applying computational methods to problems arising from biology. A better theoretical understanding of DNA sequences, for example, may one day lead to computer programs able to assist in gene finding. A key step toward this goal is using computers to identify motifs, functional subsequences hidden within larger DNA sequences.

I came up with a deeper characterization of decoy motifs. These are sequences that don't look completely random, yet they aren't what we're looking for, they don't have the central sequence. We need to be able to distinguish these from real motifs.

For Boucher, several issues confront women in computer science. 

Women lowball themselves. We learn to be team players, and to be friendly, rather than assertive. The primary reason I didn't apply to grad school right away was I was just too scared. I didn't apply for any awards until I was a PhD student because I didn't think I was going to get them. Once I started applying, I received some of them.

Indeed, Boucher has since won numerous awards, including the 2008 Google Anita Borg Scholarship, a competitive award meant to encourage women to become leaders in computing and technology.

I attribute any success I've had to my advisors, Dan Brown and Prabhakar Ragde. Both have amazing insights into the issues around women in CS, and both are really encouraging to all their students. They're real role models in terms of the way they treat their graduate students, the way they teach, and their work-life balance.

Boucher feels she thrived here, and that Waterloo's administration is encouraging to female students and faculty, actively trying to recruit women.

The graduate and undergraduate bodies are still very male-dominated. I think that the reason we should open up the field is to empower women. Sometimes the students themselves don't see obtaining more women in computer science and math as an important issue, so sometimes it takes some convincing. But controversy breeds change, right?

University of Waterloo