A Part of Our History

Irene Gargantini

Dr. Irene Gargantini

by Rebecca St. Pierre

Dr. Irene Gargantini, Professor Emeritus, long list of achievements include Chair of Western’s Computer Science Department, recipient of IBM Centre for Advanced Studies awards, as well as author of five novels and four short stories in creative fiction. When asked to select a highlight of her career she recalls, “What I liked the most was…an issue would arise that could advance technology or science, and then I was capable of getting students interested into that. To fire them up…”

Born in Milano Italy in 1934, Dr. Gargantini attended the Università degli Studi di Milano and received her doctorate degree, Dottore in Scienze Fisiche, in 1956. By 1957 she was a numerical analyst on one of the first programmable computers: the CRC 102A. “When I started I was one of the few ones,” she recalls, “and so soon I became the person that people wanted to hire.” For a long time she was one of the few women involved in Computer Science. “It wasn’t easy to be a woman, surrounded by a lot of men,” she says.

From 1958 to 1965 she worked at the Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community). Here, Dr. Gargantini published a well known paper involving polynomial and rational approximations of Bickley’s functions. Precise calculations are required for nuclear reactors to sustain the neutron flux and maintain a controlled rate of fission. Dr. Gargantini’s contribution reduced the number of necessary terms, thereby resulting in a faster calculation. Her contribution was subsequently implemented by many nuclear centres.

In 1965 she became a numerical analyst for IBM Research Laboratory in Switzerland, a company that would acknowledge her many contributions in the years to come. It was three years later, in 1968, that her thirty-two year career at Western started with a one-year invitation from Dr. John Hart, a scientist with a common interest in approximations. “He (John Hart) was one of the few who was not biased against women.”

Gargantini paper in Numerische MathematikThe 70’s brought both scientific recognition and changes in her personal life. Shortly after her promotion to Associate Professor in 1970, she published her most referenced paper, “Circular Arithmetic and the Determination of Polynomial Zeros” in Numerische Mathematik. Six years later, in 1978, she married Martin Strybosch. Suddenly she was stepmother to his five children: John, Martin, Janey, Anne-Marie and Wilma. Three of the five children went to live with them, one of whom, a student of hers, later received a degree in Computer Science. “Our agreement was that we would each keep our careers—the common focus being to take care of the family.” In November of 2007, after almost thirty years of marriage, Martin passed away.

“In the late 70’s I saw that graphics needed a lot of mathematical calculations so the transition from numerical analysis to this new field was fairly natural,” she says. In addition to publishing several papers on quadtrees and octrees, her studies expanded to visualization of 2D and 3D acquired data. She became one of the first in Canada to visualize the 3D reconstruction of a human skull. “This was pretty exciting.”

Her responsibilities not limited to research, Dr. Gargantini also taught, served on committees, supervised graduate students, and was appointed Acting Chair of the Computer Science Department from 1980 to 1981. Shortly after her promotion to full Professor in 1985, she was appointed Chair of the Computer Science Department. “There was a lot of things I wanted to do. Soon I discovered that if you don’t have the power, then it is just a dream to make any improvement. I viewed the department as an academic unit with a lot of potential…” Dr. Gargantini made many changes in her five-year term as Chair from 1986 to 1991. “I knocked on the door of the Dean until I could hire…excellent people. I was good at administration. It was not my favourite field, but I kept things in order and I tried to be fair… You are not empowered to be liked; you’re there to do the job.”

Canadian Pioneer of Computing Her contributions to the field of Computer Science have not gone unnoticed. In 1992 the IBM Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS) presented her an award for “outstanding leadership in promoting Canadian Research,” and again in 2005, as a Canadian Pioneer in Computing. In 2003 she was recognized by NSERC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, for twenty-five years of “important research achievements that have contributed to the sum total of human knowledge.”

Near the same time she retired from Computer Science in 2000, Dr. Gargantini returned to writing creative fiction. As a young woman she had abandoned writing shortly after highIrene Gatgantini as Rene Natanschool. “When I had to choose, even if I liked to write and I liked to read, I opted for a career in science and I got a degree in Physics.” In the five years following her retirement, she continued to supervise four graduate students while writing novels and short stories. Although she is no longer active at Western, her last student having graduated in 2005, she continues to write fiction. “I thought well I had to find something else, something that would allow me to stay close to my husband.” She adopted a penname by dropping the “I” in her first name Irene, and selecting letters from her surname. Rene Natan soon completed Mountains of Dawn, her first novel. Four novels followed: The Collage, Operation Woman in Black, Cross of Sapphires and The Jungfrau Watch. Her sixth novel is scheduled for release in 2008. Involved with three groups attempting to excite children about science, she also wrote the short story “A Pair of Wings for Christmas,” which paid tribute to aerodynamic flight.

Dr. Gargantini has witnessed many changes in the computer world. She attributes reliable scientific calculations as a primary motivator in the development of the computer, but foresees communication as its focus in the future. “It shrinks the world.” Her words of advice for anyone pursuing a career in science, “Work hard, keep quiet and hope for the best.”