December 14, 2021

Meet Professor Susan Davidson, CS Pioneer

When Professor Susan Davidson was invited to teach Database and Information Systems in Penn’s MCIT Online program a couple of years ago, she saw it as a chance not only to reinvent her signature course but also to reexamine her approach to teaching.

“I’ve taught this course for decades,” said Davidson, winner of the 2021 Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Excellence in Teaching. “Working with our educational designers to reimagine it for a virtual environment gave me the opportunity to rethink the material and put it together in a better way.”

Davidson has always recorded her lectures to give international students a chance to hear them more than once, so the first step in converting the course was already complete. Next, she and her teaching assistant developed recitations and quizzes to reinforce what students were learning through the recordings. Finally, she broke up her 80-minute lectures into 10- to 15-minute segments to adapt to the way people learn online.

“Breaking up the lectures was challenging at first,” she said. “But it turned out to be very useful. Once those pieces were in place, moving online worked well.”

A Circuitous Path

Davidson has taught computer science at Penn for nearly 40 years, but it wasn’t always clear that CS was her destiny. A math major at Cornell University in the 1970s, she took her first programming course at the urging of her sister, a biochemistry major who saw computation as the future of her field.

“Computer science didn’t really exist as a major at the time, but I took an intro to programming course and fell in love with it,” Davidson says. “So I sort of stumbled into the field, taking a few more courses and ending up with a concentration in computer science.”

After graduating from college, Davidson planned to marry her high school sweetheart and move on with her life. She assumed her education was complete.

But two of her CS professors at Cornell saw her potential and encouraged her to apply for PhD programs in computer science. “They asked me where my husband was working,” she recalls. “I said he was in Philadelphia, and they said I could apply to Princeton or to Penn. I applied to Princeton and got accepted, so I went and did my PhD.”

In the middle of her third year in the PhD program, Davidson got pregnant, prompting a reevaluation of her next steps.

“At the time it was unusual for a woman in engineering or computer science to have a family and be in an academic position,” she says. “A faculty member at Princeton actually told me I could not be a mother and have a tenure-track position at the same time. Fortunately I had seen my mother do it—she was a plant scientist at Cornell—so I knew it could be done.”

Davidson applied for faculty positions at a number of institutions, but the response she got from Penn stood out.

“Some of the other universities I looked at basically shut me out, because I was looking for a part-time position,” she says. “But Penn was willing to work with me to make it happen.”

A Focus on Teaching

Much of Davidson’s focus at Penn has been on research. The co-founder of Penn’s Center for Bioinformatics, she has won grants for her work on everything from database technologies to innovations in biotechnology. In recent years, she’s been able to put more time into teaching—and she’s thoroughly enjoying it.

“What I love about teaching is seeing people finally understand something they thought was hard. I love to be able to tell a story that helps someone understand why a concept is important,” she says. “And I think that the tools that I teach in the course are very helpful for their career. So I like to think that it’s going to help them in their future life in some way.”

Susan Davidson

  • Weiss Professor, Computer and Information Science Department