Tribute: Dr. Mary Jean Harrold

On 19th September 2013, my beloved advisor, Dr. Mary Jean Harrold, passed away. It has been hard to believe; I still think that she is away for some travels and, as before, she is virtually available. However, emails, which had less than 24 hours of turnaround time from her, will now take eternity to receive the response. While this reality of our bereavement is sinking in the lives of her students, I wanted to take this moment to share and celebrate the life of my wonderful advisor and role-model. During my Ph.D. life, I was honored and fortunate to share several different relationships with her. Here, I share some anecdotes describing different roles she played and the precious lessons she taught me in my life.  

A devoted mentor: She fiercely protected her students and went out of her way to ensure they get what they needed. Her dedication towards her students was evident from the way she would arrange her weekly travels such that she did not have to compromise her weekly individual-meetings with her students.  Additionally, she considered our research-related hurdles as her own. At one point in my research work, I was struggling to overcome a problem. One morning, when I met her for our weekly meeting, she told me that she had been thinking about my problem the night before and she slept over it to find a possible solution. This showed her devotion towards her students’ success. She demonstrated a collective spirit when attacking a problem but portrayed an image of individual achievement of yours when it came to accrediting your success.

An academic mother: In the Ph.d. student life, everyone goes through tough times and I had my own share of struggles with research, personal problems, health issues, or similar others.  However, Mary Jean always was there to help her students by finding time to listen to them and be there for them. At one time, I was going through a difficult phase in my personal life. I was extremely demotivated and wanted to go back to India for a break. When I went up to her, she sat me down, heard me out, explained me that going to India won’t solve my problems, advised me to go to counseling, offered me to stay with her for a couple of days, and checked on me time and again. Receiving such a tremendous support from her motivated me to distract myself from the problem by focusing on my research. Her support had become my energy and I was eventually able to overcome the problem. She was truly an academic mother to me.

A trusted advisor: One of the most impressive things about her was the way she balanced her personal and professional life. Being a woman, I think that learning how to strike the right work-life balance is a very important thing. After I got married, I asked her advice on how to maintain a right work-life balance. She suggested that when “you are with your family be with them and when you are at work, devote complete time to work.” During my seven years of mentoring-relationship with her, I’ve observed that she diligently followed this principle—I’d never receive an email response from her on a Friday or Saturday, which were her days with her family.

A wonderful friend: I’ve been very fortunate to spend some quality time during conference travels with Mary Jean. When we would sit to chat, we’d never realize how fast the time passed. During the ICGSE 2011 conference, I went to Mary Jean’s hotel room to practice my presentation. Instead, we ended up sharing our personal stories and experiences for the remaining time. Later, she joked that “when we meet next we should get some work done.” Also, I still remember the cold evening of December 2012 in Edinburgh.  We met for dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. Over the dinner, we started talking about our lives and we didn’t realize that 3 hours had passed. This only goes to show that the age difference did not matter in case of Mary Jean and that one could doubtlessly enjoy her warm and vibrant company and conversations. She was, in every sense, one of my best friends.

Besides the different roles she played in my life, she even taught me many lessons that have helped me shape my life better.  

Never give up before trying: In terms of the research focus, I was the odd person in our software-engineering research group. I was the first qualitative-research student in Mary Jean’s research group of technical program-analysis students. This meant that we faced several new challenges that Mary Jean had not encountered earlier. There were several events when Mary Jean wrote to people (sometimes strangers) asking for help for my work despite knowing that writing to them would be awkward. When I asked her whether she was comfortable writing for me, she’d reply, “the worst the person will do is refuse me, but it’s worth a try.”  Her relentless effort in helping me with my research work, taught me to never give up before trying at least once.

Speak up for yourself: In my early days as a Ph.D. student, I didn’t believe much in myself. As a result, even when I achieved something, I was timid to speak about my achievements. This is a common and known problem among woman. Well aware of this problem, Mary Jean, on several occasions, became my voice. I remember one such incident distinctly. After I presented my first workshop paper, my paper’s topic triggered tremendous interest in the participants and in the latter half of the workshop, my paper was popularly selected as a topic of the discussion. I didn’t see this as an accomplishment, until over one lunch, when Mary Jean mentioned about this to my fellow software-engineering male Ph.D. students. At first it embarrassed me, but later I realized the importance of speaking up at such events. She has given voice to my research work on several occasions. I owe my success, in pursuing a research topic that was not Mary Jean’s expertise, to her voice and support.

Develop a thick skin:  When I started the program, I was like many other women, who took things quite emotionally.  For instance, when other researchers would degrade my research, it would upset me. There were times that such incidents demotivated me to the extent of thinking about quitting my program. However, having realized the impact that these things had on me, Mary Jean heard me out, explained the causes and the consequences to me, and advised me to “develop a thick skin.” She trained me on replying to such comments and provided me the emotional backing needed to face such situations. That support helped me build a strong defense mechanism I desperately needed to survive in the research community.

Mary Jean’s passing has taught me one valuable lesson in life—it’s important to cherish the time we have with our near and dear ones because life is uncertain. Although I think I could have done much more, I’m happy that I frequently expressed my gratitude to Mary Jean for her support in my Ph.D. life. I was inspired by the Indian tradition’s idea of “Guru Dakshina,” which referred to the gesture of reciprocating and acknowledging the teacher’s (i.e., guru’s) teachings by repaying her/him in some form. I started my own tradition of taking her out for lunch almost every semester to acknowledge her impact on my life.  This soon became an opportunity for me to bond with her outside work. Additionally, this gave me the opportunity to strengthen some relationships I shared with her (e.g., friendship). Although I will miss similar lunches with her, I feel very fortunate to not have waited till the end to repay my “guru dakshina.” She left us too soon but she left behind incredible memories to treasure and reasons to embrace life with a smile.

Her Girl,

Hina Shah Jamkhande