Irene Gargantini Strybosch - A short autobiography
Irene Gargantini Strybosch Professor Emeritus with Western University (London, Ontario), IEEE Life Member, Sponsor of the Martin Gerardus Strybosch Awards
I was born in 1934, in Milan, Italy. The thirties were a decade of economic crises and much political turmoil. Hitler had seized power in ‘33, the civil war in Spain had broken out in ‘36 and Mussolini was keeping a tight hold on Italy. Real or perceived enemies, and even non-supporters of the fascist regime, were being ostracized or killed. Jews were banned from public office, Montessori schools closed, and working women not in the health care or education systems were fired from government posts. My father, an engineer with the railroads, was transferred from Milan to Bologna just because of his ‘unacceptable’ habit of telling jokes about the regime.
Then on June 10th, 1940, fairly unexpectedly to most of us, Italy joined Germany in what was supposed to be a ‘blitz’ war – a quick and overwhelming air bombardment of the enemy. Little Irene, however, wasn’t affected by any of that, initially.
A happy kid in perpetual motion, I was always ready to play and learn. I had loving parents, a grandmother who knew an incredible number of funny fairytales, and an aunt with whom my sister and I played all sorts of games. The family lived in grandmother’s two-storey house, which offered plenty of space, a nice little garden with a fig tree, white and a red grape vines and a large terrace sheltered by a big wisteria. There was also a persimmon tree whose fruit ripened in early November, and it was quite a Fall show in its own right, with many shiny orange-coloured fruit hanging on branches with no leaves. Then it happened.
On October 12th 1942, Milan, an industrial city, suffered its first bombardment by the British Air Force. Unknowingly to us, our only neighbour, a big chemical company, had been militarized to produce explosives, so our entire block became one of the enemy’s major targets. An incendiary bomb destroyed part of our house, but nobody got hurt. Except for my grandmother, who was in the corner opposite to where the incendiary bomb had landed, all the other members of our family were out at the time.
I still remember the day after the raid, when the family gathered around the damaged house. My sister was hopping and dancing around, happy that everybody was alive and well. My mother was trying to button up my previous year’s coat, and I remember her saying, “This coat is much too small for you now.”
I escaped supervision and wandered around, as curious as any child would be in such circumstances. There was flooding in the room underneath what used to be mine and my sister’s living quarters, where there was now no ceiling, and where a truss leaned at an angle in one corner. I looked up and saw nothing but grey sky. Our room was no more.
Our room: its furniture consisted of two beds, a bookcase, a fancy dresser with wood inlays of different colours, a tall armoire, and a lot of toys. In a corner lay a construction set, a puppet theatre (my dad was the entertaining puppeteer), and twelve dolls, eight of which belonged to my sister, and four to me. Of course I played with all of them, except for the big porcelain baby that opened and closed its eyes and had a little crib of its own. That I could only hold if properly supervised.
I wandered around, trying to figure out what had happened. Then I heard my mother say, “We have to think about the girls. We should go buy them some underwear.”
I looked up at mother, and I remember thinking, “Grown-ups don’t have any sense of what’s important. There are no more dolls, no more toys. I can’t even find my teddy bear. (I was eight at the time and occasionally I hugged him tight to help me fall asleep). And what do they think about? Underwear!”
That day will be etched in my memory forever.
A few weeks later we moved to the country. Italy suffered more bombings and in a following raid our house was destroyed completely. Times were tough, and became tougher as the war lengthened. There was little food, no soap, only a few pieces of wood to keep the cooking stove going, no materials to repair shoes, no fabric and no wool to knit with. Then the bombardments started in the countryside as well. Bridges, trains, buses, ships and boats were targeted daily.
Along our peninsula the Allied Forces were fighting the Germans, slowly repelling them towards the north. Finally, on April 25th, 1945, the hostilities ceased. Almost immediately my father started to rebuild the house, and all the hardship seemed to be forgotten.
In the fall we went back to Milan, and I resumed school on a regular basis.
I was good in the humanities as well as science. I loved reading and occasionally wrote short stories and a few poems. In post-war Italy it was difficult to get a job, and my parents thought a woman should not consider marriage the only alternative in life. They suggested I choose a scientific or technical career.
After high school I obtained a degree in Physics from the University of Milan, my thesis being on the trajectory of electrons accelerated by a synchrotron. Two years before, the same university had graduated Riccardo Giacconi, the future Nobel laureate in Cosmic X-ray Sources.
I was offered a job at the University of Milan - no pay, just the honour of having my name listed with the big guys at the entrance of the faculty of physics. My first task was not of a scientific nature however, nor was it intellectually challenging. I had to help install a temporary shed to house the experiments aimed at simulating the properties of the first synchrotron, which was soon to be installed in the country.
There was an extreme need to examine more carefully the trajectories involved, and to achieve this, the numerical solution of partial differential equations was required. Could those strange machines called computers help? Soon thereafter I was dispatched to learn about one of them.
Computers were then in their infancy, and there was great expectation that one day they would be useful. I learned the rudiments of programming from a handful of dedicated people - among whom were such notables as Drs. Luigi Dadda, Lorenzo Lunelli and Guido Bortone. I got to work on one of the very first computers, the CRC 152A, made by the Computer Research Corporation, with headquarters in California. It was a gift of the Americans to our polytechnic institute.
For a few years my life consisted of little else than work, and then more work; of learning and more learning, as I built the foundation of my professional career.
In 1958 I joined The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Nuclear reactors were the talk of the day, and also in this field there was great expectation. The design of an experimental nuclear reactor (based on the French project ORGEL) was being investigated. It would use organic fluid as coolant. The calculation of the neutron flux was an essential task, as a controlled amount of neutrons had to be produced at all times in order to keep the nuclear reaction stable. Numerical calculations became indispensable, and were done with very slow computers of the IBM700-series (not using transistors yet).
To accelerate the computing process I developed (and published) rational approximations for the evaluation of the neutron flux and efficient methods to estimate the heat dispersion in nuclear bars. My approach required less number of operations and therefore made the necessary calculations faster.
In 1965 I was offered a position with the IBM Research Laboratory in Rüschlikon (Switzerland). They had just installed an IBM 1620, one of the first transistorized computers, which also offered variable word-length. Soon the lab got an IBM 320, the baby sister of what became the very popular IBM 360. The machine was accessible to researchers around the clock, and it was like a gift from heaven to those who had the desire to learn.
Numerical analysis was an upcoming discipline, and it needed to be developed considerably if computers were to ever come of age. In Switzerland I pursued interesting work on accelerating the convergence of methods used to evaluate important and frequently-used mathematical functions. One day, as I was perusing the Communications of the ACM – at that time the only major journal on computers – my eyes focused on an announcement: The University of Western Ontario was establishing the first Canadian undergraduate programme in computer science, headed by Dr. John F. Hart. It so happened that I was familiar with Hart’s research, since I used one of his findings in my work. I thought it might be nice to contact him and maybe even pay him a visit.
I wrote to Dr. Hart, and subsequently got an invitation to join the faculty. I got a leave of absence from IBM and embarked on what was to become the most extraordinary adventure of my life.
I arrived in London, Ontario on July 10th 1968, but my first encounter with Canada was not as smooth as I would have liked. The couple of people I hoped to work with took off on vacation a few days after my arrival, and then a postal strike started. I had taken with me all the IBM shares the company sold at a discount to its employees, and I was counting on selling them to provide me with the cash needed to buy a car. The Bank of Montreal, to which I had handed the shares, claimed they had sent them away to be cashed, but couldn’t supply me with the corresponding money because of the postal strike. I hadn’t been reimbursed for the trip either, and wouldn’t get paid until September. At that point I placed a phone call to the company I used to bank with while working in Switzerland, and they provided me with the money I needed – the day after I called them. Finally, I was able to buy a car.
I was asked to teach three courses for the upcoming term, only eight weeks away: Scientific Computing (full course), Computer Logic (full course) and Numerical Analysis (half). There were no course outlines, but fortunately I had taken a post-doctoral course on computer logic at the Politecnico di Milano, so I revised those notes to make the material suitable for the undergraduate level. I was well familiar with the topics of the other two courses, even if I had no clue as to the pace at which I should deliver the course content.
There were other, social roadblocks too. The only place where Italian people gathered socially in London was the Marconi Club, which, unfortunately, didn’t admit single women. I survived...but barely. The young department had only a handful of teaching staff, but almost immediately attracted a huge number of interested students. After a year I was offered the position of associate professor. With some regret, I resigned from IBM and decided to stay here. Work, as well as life, was gradually getting better: I could now do some research, and the country began to fascinate me because of its vastness and extraordinary resources.
Academic like was not without struggle however. While I found wonderful colleagues to work with within the department, the faculty of science saw computers mainly as ‘toys’ and our research as ‘playing games.’ They seemed to have no vision of the new discipline’s future and did their best to limit resources for our students, restrict access to computers for our research, and minimize recognition of the new discipline. And their short-sightedness was not only limited to the future and the role of computers. It also encompassed sexism where female faculty were concerned. And being an immigrant compounded my problem even further. I often had to face unpleasant and unjustified opposition when I stood up for the interests of my department, or my own.
Despite such obstacles however, I remained focused. I developed several new courses and improved on old ones; my lecture notes on computer logic were later adopted by Dr. Tom Bonnema for a course in the Faculty of Engineering; and I compiled and introduced undergraduate courses on Analysis of Algorithms, Computer Arithmetic and Computer Graphics. My graduate courses changed from year to year, and I had varying numbers of graduate students with whom I explored the many new avenues that computers opened up, including medical imaging. The work with Doctor Uldis Bite (now with the Mayo Clinic) produced one of the first software packages in the country for the visualization of CT scans. During this period I published about hundred scientific papers, among which was a seminal paper on Circular Arithmetic that over the years had thousands of follow-ups. An equal amount of abstracts, short presentations and reviews were added to my scientific profile. From the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council I finally received the much needed funds for carrying out relevant research.
A few years later, after my tough landing in Canada, I met my husband, Martin Gerardus Strybosch, who helped me appreciate all the possibilities this country offers. He gave me a family, as some of his five children grew close to me, and a few years later I enjoyed, with him, the birth of ten grandchildren. Babysitting was often the highlight of my weekends.
In 1986 I was appointed Chair of the Department of Computer Science. There was a reception held by the president, Dr. George Petersen, for all faculty members holding a new administrative post. It took place in the president’s wonderful mansion situated on a hill overlooking the city of London. As my husband and I entered the door the president rushed to him and said, “What a pleasure it is to meet the chair of the Computer Science Department!” My husband stood there, amused, for a moment, then pointed at me and replied. “It’s her, not me!”
It was inconceivable that a university president would not be aware that one of his faculty was making history - since I was the first woman in Canada to ever hold the chair of a computer science department. I considered it awful, but not surprising, in light of the prevailing attitudes of that era.
I held that post from 1986 to 1991. I felt proud of bringing the department to a new research level. Recognition of my achievements came mostly from outside of academia: two awards from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (25 Years of Excellence in Research and Recognition of Contributions to Canadian Research) and two from the IBM Centre for Advanced Studies (Contributing to Canadian Research and Pioneer of Computing in Canada). I stayed with The University of Western Ontario (now called Western) until I retired, having enjoyed teaching and research for a total of 32 years.
My personal life was immensely enriched by the presence of my husband Martin and his family. He was one of eight children, who came to Canada together after losing their parents. The story of his life and the courage he showed in facing the adversities he encountered always moved me to tears. Together, we had an exciting life. We went fishing in the Great Lakes for salmon and trout, in the ocean for the bigger catches and once I even accompanied him moose hunting. When he developed heart trouble and had to get more physical exercise, I joined him on the golf course. My Martin died in 2007, leaving big holes in the emotional and physical aspects of my life.
Retired since the year 2000, I reverted to the passion of my youth – writing fiction. I enjoyed enormously the creative process of forging a story, populating it with different, often contrasting characters, and orchestrating their interactions. It’s different from the excitement I experienced in my scientific research, but it’s equally stimulating and satisfying. I was very fortunate to be able to experience both. The habit of lecturing didn’t disappear with my retirement. I currently offer two sets of seminars; one, called Learning from the Masters, analyses the essential features of bestsellers; the other, entitled Publishing and Promoting Your Book aimed at helping fellow authors to use the social media effectively.
I’ll always miss the Italian culture and Italy’s unsurpassed richness in the visual arts and history. When I returned to Milan for the first time, I wondered if immigrating to Canada had been a mistake; I had missed tremendously my family and friends, the clear skies, the sunny beaches, the mountains where I skied when I was young, Milan’s main square with its unique cathedral. I used to say that I would like to be in Canada during the working week and be in Italy for the weekend. Soon after, however, I realized that I couldn’t ever have had the same possibilities for my research, and life in general, had I stayed in Europe.
Going back to Italy is always a joyful interlude, but I am extremely grateful for all that this country has offered me, and still offers to me.
PS. As of today, I have published nine novels (fiction), four of which have earned international recognition: The Blackpox Threat (first place, 2012 Five Star Dragonfly Award and Finalist, 2011 National Indie Excellence Award); The Loves and Tribulations of Detective Stephen Carlton (Silver Medal, 2015 Global Ebook Awards); The Woman in Black, (second place, 2015 Five Star Dragonfly Award); Fleeting Visions is to be included in the 2016 Timeless Anthologies by The Reader’s Guild.