Mary Lou Maher: a conspicuous life by design

4 July 2006

A Google search for 'Mary Lou Maher' retrieves an unexpected and startling piece of information. Listed in the middle of her career highlights is a radio interview she conducted with the son she gave up for adoption 29 years ago. "Brad was 20 when he tracked me down, ringing me from the US one day. We are now extremely close. In the radio segment, I tell him about the day he was born," says the Professor of Design Computing in the Faculty of Architecture. A change in circumstances will soon bring them even closer. Professor Maher is taking up a high-profile position in July as Scientific Advisor to the US National Science Foundation's Directorate of Computer and Information Science and Engineering; the two-year post will allow her to continue her research and supervision in design computing at Sydney. The NSF offer took her by surprise. At interview she was asked to present her vision of what she wanted to achieve. "I didn't fit the job description so they gave the position to someone else. But they were so impressed with my ideas they created a new job altogether," she says. Professor Maher plans to establish a program at the NSF that combines her research specialities of design and information technology, and she will have a $20 million budget to do it."Being bold and different is the only way to get recognised," she says. It's a philosophy she developed from being part of a large Catholic family. Growing up in Virginia, she was the sixth of 12 children, and the third of six girls. "I was the middle child twice. People say that birth order impacts on who you are; mine was all haywire." When she was six, her parents, brothers and sisters piled into the family station wagon and drove off, accidentally leaving her on the kerb. "I sat there wondering if they'd ever come back. I knew then that I had to find a way to stand out," she explains. Professor Maher has lived her adult life outside the square. At 17, she moved to New York and attended Columbia University, one of very few girls studying civil engineering. She became pregnant and made a life-defining decision to adopt out her baby son."While abortion was available at the time, single parenthood wasn't. Nowadays I would never encourage adoption. A mother should be with her babies, babies should be with their mother," she explains.After graduating, she "built bridges" for a while before enrolling in a PhD in civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. "My supervisor was so inspiring I knew I never wanted to leave uni. I wanted to be a researcher," says Professor Maher. This is exactly what happened. Sixteen years ago, she moved to Australia and took up a position at Sydney developing new technologies for designers. At 48, she has seven children. In her late teens, she married Brad's father and had another four children with him. She is now married to John Gero, Professor of Design Science, and had her youngest two children with him. "At home, I look around the table and think, 'Wow, all these kids'." The kids, of course, include her eldest, Brad. "When he contacted me, it was extremely emotional for the both of us. For me, the grief happened again but it was amplified. I went through the loss again. I lost 20 years of his life," she says. After gaining a Master of Philosophy at Sydney, Brad is now a professor of philosophy in the US; Professor Maher - and the rest of the family - will see even more of him when she returns."Going back, it will be interesting to be American again. In Australia, there is an even playing field; over there, they love tall poppies," she says. Is she a tall poppy? "In Australia, I probably am. I've achieved a lot here," she says. She's attracted large research grants, established a new degree program, grown a group of researchers, and supervises PhD students who publish regularly. But the faculty hasn't lost her to the US - she'll be back for a week in August and September, and in two years she'll be back for good.Professor Maher may be a tall poppy, but physically she's tiny. "I run marathons. I run up to three hours every Sunday. It's my thinking time." With seven children and a demanding career, she has a lot to think about.