Ruzena Bajcsy: Renowned engineer, ‘enemy of the state’

There was a time when computer vision and robotics pioneer was deemed an “enemy of the state” and disqualified from teaching because of concerns that she could be a bad influence on impressionable students. Decades later, UC Berkeley welcomed her as a distinguished member of its electrical engineering and computer sciences faculty, someone who would inspire students, faculty and staff alike.

Ruzena Bajcsy with a robotBajcsy had overcome extraordinary obstacles by the time she joined Berkeley in 2001 to direct the nascent Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). She was born Jewish in Czechoslovakia in 1933, and she was orphaned at 11 when Nazi troops killed her parents.

After the war, the Communist government took control of Czechoslovakia, and Bajcsy became separated from her younger sister, her closest surviving family member, when the borders to the country closed. She grew up in an orphanage and with guardians until adulthood.

Despite these traumatic events, Bajcsy persevered, excelling in school and enrolling in Slovak Technical University to study electrical engineering. It was there that she gave a speech at a student meeting that extolled Czech educator John Amos Comenius, an early advocate of universal education, while rejecting the Russian education system. Her speech earned her the label “enemy of the state,” and she was sent to work in an electronics factory for five years after she finished her master’s degree.

Undaunted, Bajcsy returned to Slovak Technical University to get her Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering in 1967, the first woman to do so. Computer science was still “in diapers,” she said, recalling how she cut her teeth on a Russian Ural II computer, built with electronic lamps instead of transistors, and programmed in hexadecimal code with perforated film.

Bajcsy’s work led to an opportunity to study at Stanford University in 1967, where she was exposed to a counterculture hippie movement that was a world away from her previous life in Eastern Europe. She stayed and earned her second Ph.D. degree, this time in computer science, in 1972.

After graduating from Stanford, Bajcsy joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Computer and Information Science, becoming chair of the department 13 years later. At Penn she founded the General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception Laboratory (GRASP), where she introduced the idea of active perception in robotics. Instead of static cameras, Bajcsy proposed moving sensors, greatly improving the way robots interact with their surrounding environment.

In 1998, she broke another glass ceiling to become the first woman to head the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation. During her tenure at the NSF, Bajcsy helped establish the foundation’s Information Technology Research program. She is also a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, a rare feat.

Bajcsy credits her childhood and background with instilling societal and ethical values in her approach to research. “You grow up under that circumstance very quickly,” Bajcsy said when she arrived at Berkeley. “You quickly recognize what is important and what is less important.”

“I’m a scientist, first and above all,” she added, “but I am also a scientist with great social consciousness.”

To learn more:

< Back to previous page