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GirlGeek of the Week
March 2003

Cyndi Webb

Cynthia Lawson

Artist, musician, writer, teacher…even video gamer, Cynthia has worn all of these hats in her years of involvement with technology. However one might not have predicted it early in her career. Then she was busy majoring in Electrical Engineering and seemingly setting a course straight towards a world of only computers, microchips and microprocessors. But she was not about to have a degree in Engineering define her career goals. Cynthia had other plans.

She entered the Electrical Engineering department at the University of the Andes in Bogota Colombia with determination and a sheer curiosity to "find out how things worked". This eagerness to learn and experiment became the foundation of Cynthia's involvement with technology, applying it to other interests in her life and career.

This was truly evident in her time in Bogota, where she not only devoted her time to study, but also worked on improved educational technology tools for low-income children. She also began teaching electronics and programming to "non-engineers" and emerging artists. To this day, she continues to share her knowledge and experiences with art students at New York University, and faculty at Columbia University exploring new ways to integrate technology into their projects.

As if all of that didn't take up her time already, Cynthia has also submerged herself in personal projects, creating art pieces in a variety of mediums, including digital video, installation, interactive multimedia, sound art, print design and photography. She is a multimedia artist in the truest sense, bringing her artistic and technical expertise to collaborations with artists, poets and musicians around the world, such as an electroacoustic concert with composer Ricardo Escallon, and an interactive sound installation with Juan Reyes, exhibited at the Modern Museum of Art in Bogota. Her research in the positive potential of merging technology with art and education can be found in various articles and papers presented in conferences worldwide.

We are glad to have Cynthia as our Girl Geek of the Week. Her ability to take technology out of the box and make it fit into her world and her mission in life and career, be it art, music or education is a wonderful inspiration for women and girls who are turned off by the rigidity that is often associated with hi-tech computing, electronics and technology.

Tell us more about yourself and your background with technology.

I did my undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering because I wanted to understand how "things" worked. Although I have never had a full-time job as an engineer, this background has allowed me to have a clear grasp on different technologies, and a fluency to learn other new media. Soon after graduating from Engineering School I started teaching electronics to art students, which stepped me into a new world of technology as an artistic medium. I currently combine my passion for teaching and interest in new media at Columbia University's Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. I have also continued developing my own portfolio through collaborations and individual art practice with new technologies.

When did you first discover your love or obsession with technology and new media?

My first hands-on experience with technology was programming in Basic on my Atari 400 when I was around twelve years old. With Electrical Engineering I studied technology in a very scientific and mathematical way. It was in its application to the arts that I would say I discovered I loved technology and new media..

Do you find it difficult learning about technology?

I have always enjoyed mathematics, and therefore have developed a scientific way of problem-solving. As one of my professors at NYU said, learning about technology isn't necessarily learning new skills, but the skill of how to solve problems. I consider myself fluent in this area, and therefore a quick learner of new technologies.

Were you encouraged as a child to learn more about and participate in science, math and more technical-oriented projects?

When I was growing up I was fortunate to have encouraging environments at home and at school. At home I was motivated to work on the things that most excited me; and at school there were special programs and activities for certain disciplines. Although I was not encouraged specifically towards the sciences, that was my natural tendency, and therefore supported by my parents and teachers.

As a multimedia artist, share with us how you became interested in art and when did you decided to start integrating new media and technology in your work?

My undergraduate thesis for Electrical Engineering was in Computer Music. Though from a programming side, that was my first incursion into technology for the arts. I then started teaching electronics to art students, and was fascinated by the work they did - non-technical applications of things I had learned in Engineering school were exciting. I then decided to come to New York University for my masters in interactive media so I, too, could explore these non-technical applications of new media. Thanks to my fluency in the technical side of things, I was able to focus on experimenting with new media, and therefore started developing an artistic vocabulary with technology.

Did you have a mentor in the field or anyone who inspired you to use technology in your work?

My thesis advisor, Juan Reyes, brought me into the world of Computer Music. I thank him for inspiring me to use technology in artistic applications.

How much of mentoring is important to women in technology?

I believe mentoring is important, but not only for women. I think some women do need other female role models to follow within technology, because there is still a feeling of men dominating the field. Although I do not relate to a feeling of exclusion, I know of women who have not studied engineering, for example, because of the fear of being a minority.

What do you think we need to do to get more women interested in technology?

Sites and articles like this one are helpful. I think the presence of technology in the arts has also created a big push for women, who come in from the artistic side, to immerse themselves in technology.

What advice can you give to girls or women who are just beginning to learn about technology and new media?

When I have taught technology (conceptually and applied) I encourage my students to work on projects close to their interests. I, particularly see this with women, who, if working on content close to their heart, will become well versed in the new skill they are learning.

What do you do when you aren't working and thinking about the next project?

I try to spend as much time away from technology as possible. I like to spend time outside, as well as visit museums and galleries and see what others are working on.

What are your current or future projects?

I'm currently in the presentation phase of Stephanie Strickland and I are working hard to present our project in as many venues as we can. Future projects include a sound anti-war poster (with, a new interactive installation I'm calling "Whispering Words," and a series of small reactive sculptures.

Any favorite websites, tech tools or cool devices to recommend?

For anyone interested in interactive interfaces (objects or installations), I recommend you check out the BX-24 - a simple-to-use microcontroller, I also like my site

Do you consider yourself a "Geek"?

No. I have never liked the negative connotations that come with the word geek: antisocial, unattractive, unidirectional. I would call myself a Tech-y more than a geek.


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