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With a last name like Picard, I had to be a SciFi Nerd in the early 90s…. A More Formal Introduction

I am serving as one of 5 HASTAC Scholars for Vanderbilt University during the 2013-2014 school year and am pleased to be partnered with Vanderbilt's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy. As a PhD candidate in Modern European History, my research explores the intersection of science, policy, and culture. My dissertation, "Automaton Culture: The Remaking of Mankind in Interwar Europe," examines the cultural history of technology surrounding automata and robots in Germany and Great Britain in the aftermath of the Great War.

By Weird Tales, Inc. (Scanned cover of pulp magazine.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I'm often asked what the impetus was for my dissertation project, and I have yet to come up with a good (or short) answer. I have long been a science fiction nerd. In fact, it was virtually impossible to ignore science fiction and the imagining of future technology when I grew up with the last name "Picard" in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But more than just being a SciFi nerd, I was fascinated by technology. As a child, I had the luxury of having a mother whose Navy career inspired an interest in computers. My favorite Saturday morning activity was jumping on her Tandy 1000 and trying to figure out how to make the blinking DOS cursor magically make my video games appear. 

DOS became my gateway drug into programming. I was forever fascinated with how typing simple commands could illicit giant displays of directories or "CLS" would quickly erase evidence of my 6 year old attempts to break my mother's computer. It wasn't long after that I discovered the basics of BASIC programming and started coding simple executables with my older sister. By the time I entered middle school, I experienced Windows 95 for the first time and was simultaneously confused and excited by its GUI. I remember getting in trouble several times in homeroom for "breaking" the class's only computer by returning it to DOS to try to access a word processing application. 

Shortly after that, the "web" came to our house for the first time via a 28k modem, and I stumbled my way into HTML with the "View Source" option and the desire to make Angelfire and Geocities stop flashing seizure-inducing marquees. This is when I really discovered my love for computing technology, and it seemed like I was learning the basics of a new computer language - either application programming or web - every year. 

In college, I stopped programming and instead earned a double major in Psychology and History. Programming remained a strong interest, but the early 2000s saw the bursting of the dot-com bubble. Further, the issue of women in STEM had yet to receive the attention it needed, and I grew tired of being the only female in my computer science classes. 

Upon graduation though, I found myself back in front of the keyboard working for a defense contractor wearing many different hats, including programmer, graphic designer, and web designer. I loved most aspects of the job. We adapted former anti-submarine warfare technology to meet the demands of military and commercial applications, especially in terms of compliance with government restrictions on noise pollution and marine mammal protection. I learned a lot about the demands of government policy, community activism, and industry and military economic considerations; but the job had its limits. I knew my calling involved teaching, and I wanted to find a way to merge all my interests into one profession. Graduate study in history has allowed me to take advantage of technology for teaching and research. It also resulted in a dissertation project that draws on science, public knowledge of science (including through science fiction and popular culture), and public policy. 

Though my path to a PhD was never a straight line, it has come to involve many of the interests I hold most dear. Now, with the addition of HASTAC and my partnership with the Curb Center at Vanderbilt, I'm delving even deeper into how to merge technology into the classroom. As the year goes on, I will blog the details of my newest project, which brings digital humanities technologies like Omeka into undergraduate research projects. In the meantime, you can find me on HASTAC or Twitter @DRPicardHIS, espousing the benefits of teaching programming to humanities students and plotting my post-dissertation adoption of a puppy I’ll name Riker.

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