Programming a New Major

The first professor hired to teach computer science at Westmont, Kim Kihlstrom describes her work passionately.

“I have really found my calling,” she says. “I love what I do. It’s exciting to be part of something from the beginning.”

Kim has taken a less traditional route to her career. She married Ken Kihlstrom (who joined the physics faculty in 1984), graduated from Stanford with a degree in electrical engineering and worked for Hewlett Packard. Raising three children and doing a little teaching for the physics department kept her busy. During Ken’s sabbatical in 1993, she managed to earn a master’s degree from Stanford. The next year, at age 37, she entered a doctoral program in computer engineering at UC Santa Barbara. She completed her degree in 1999 and took a job at Westmont, which had just added a computer science major.

Despite her background at research universities, Kim values the liberal arts approach.

“We teach fundamental concepts and the principles of problem-solving because the field changes so rapidly,” she says. “Communication skills are essential as programmers design software in teams. Computer science fits the liberal arts very well.”

Building a sense of community is important to Kim. She eats dinner with students once a week and invites them to her home for a weekly Bible study. “I like the small, intimate nature of our program,” she says.

Baking cookies is a small way Kim makes students feel welcome. The professional cookie oven she found on E-Bay sits on a shelf in the office.

Kim loves to teach, and her students appreciate her. In just her fifth year at Westmont, she won the Bruce and Adaline Bare Teacher of the Year Award for the natural and behavioral sciences.

Her research has also gained acclaim. Kim received the 2004 Wilkes Award for the best paper published in a volume of The Computer Journal. Westmont recognized her commitment to scholarship with a Faculty Research Award in May. She is the principal investigator for a four-year National Science Foundation scholarship program for computer science, engineering and mathematics students.

Since graduate school, the focus of Kim’s research has been survivable distributed computer systems. A distributed system is a loosely connected series of computers that work together. A survivable system can withstand an attack by a virus or a hacker. The challenge is to keep a distributed system running when one of its computers is hacked.

Kim collaborates with a professor at Carnegie Mellon who was a fellow graduate student. The two women and their students are working on the Starfish system, aptly named for the animal that can grow back a lost arm.

In the Starfish system, the body, the central component, is well protected with stringent security measures. The arms represent parts of the system that are better performing and more versatile but less secure. If one of the arms suffers an attack, the system can disconnect it to save the other components.

Kim enjoys involving students in her research and would like to see more women in a field that continues to be dominated by men. She has taken students to a conference for women in the discipline and is working with female colleagues to make the field more appealing to women.

In a future paper, Kim plans to integrate her faith and her discipline by arguing that the limits of knowledge in a distributed system reflect restrictions on human understanding. “We see in a mirror darkly,” she says. “It’s an idea that intrigues me.”

Kim finds it amazing that series of 1’s and 0’s create such complex systems. “I hope I never lose my sense of awe at what we are able to do.

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