Computer scientist and devoted educator Susan B. Horwitz dies

July 15, 2014

Professor of Computer Sciences Susan B. Horwitz, a devoted educator and researcher noted for service to her discipline on both the university and national levels, died June 11 at Agrace HospiceCare in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. Horwitz, who was 59, had been battling stomach cancer.

An expert in programming languages and software engineering, Horwitz had been a member of the UW-Madison faculty for nearly 30 years. Among many professional accomplishments, she championed the encouragement of students who might otherwise overlook opportunities in computing.

Photo: Susan Horwitz

Susan Horwitz

“Susan's zest for research, teaching, service and life will be sorely missed by all in UW Computer Sciences,” says department chair Mark Hill.

Particularly during the last decade, Horwitz strove to attract underrepresented students, particularly women and targeted minorities, to computer science and ensure their success. She was a founding member of the Academic Alliance of the National Center for Women and IT, based in Boulder, Colorado.

On the UW-Madison campus, Horwitz launched Wisconsin Emerging Scholars-Computer Sciences (WES-CS) in 2004. The WES-CS program centers on small, student-led meetings in which beginning students work on problems that deepen their understanding of topics from the introductory programming course, CS 302. Over the last decade, roughly 900 students have gone through WES-CS, and many of them have advanced to top graduate programs or careers in private industry.

Says Martha Ferris, a 2013 graduate who double-majored in computer sciences and mathematics: "WES-CS provides a wonderful oasis for discussion, exploration and community for beginning computer sciences students, especially for those who might find the field intimidating, as I did when I began. … This [program] would not have happened without the incredible vision, dedication and leadership of Susan Horwitz.”

The Department of Computer Sciences plans to expand WES-CS to courses beyond CS 302 as part of a commitment to enhancing undergraduate education and drawing a broader pool of students to the field. A special fund, the Susan B. Horwitz WES-CS Endowment, has been set up to help further this purpose.

“Dr. Horwitz is essential to my growth in college. She is a dedicated, methodical, capable and generous educator … whom I will always hold in highest esteem.”

—Former student

Horwitz also promoted the involvement of women in scientific and technical fields through Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), a residential learning community of about 60 female freshmen based in Sellery Hall. She served as WISE faculty director from 2012 to 2014.

As a researcher, Horwitz’s particular emphasis was on software development environments, program slicing, dataflow analysis and pointer analysis. Her work impacted private industry; among other contributions, it helped make the Windows operating system much more stable beginning around 2004. An algorithm for interprocedural dataflow analysis that Horwitz and collaborators developed in 1995 was a key component of a Microsoft tool to reduce crashes caused by bugs in Windows device drivers.

Horwitz published widely in journals and refereed conferences and workshops. She received a Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1989 from the National Science Foundation. She also held four separate, yearlong visiting appointments at major research institutes and universities abroad, including in France, Denmark and Italy.

Outside of her professional life, Horwitz pursued a broad range of interests. Her bachelor’s degree, earned magna cum laude at Wesleyan University, was in ethnomusicology. Among other pursuits, she enjoyed bicycling, horseback riding and the arts, including playing the piano and serving on the board of Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, an inventive chamber music ensemble in Madison.

Horwitz earned master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science from Cornell University. After completing her Ph.D. in 1985, she joined the UW-Madison faculty as an assistant professor, advancing to associate professor in 1991 and full professor in 1996. From 2004-07, she served as associate chair of the department. She became a professor emerita in April 2014.

In the classroom, Horwitz was a creative instructor who sometimes used props and songs to explain key concepts. She won numerous teaching awards, including a 2011 Distinguished Honors Faculty Award from the honors program in the College of Letters & Science. She was nominated by a student who wrote, in part: “Dr. Horwitz is essential to my growth in college. She is a dedicated, methodical, capable and generous educator … whom I will always hold in highest esteem.”

Other teaching awards include two from the computer sciences department (1987 and 1997) and two from the university’s student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (1989 and 1993), the field’s leading professional organization.

Horwitz is survived by her husband, Thomas Reps, also a computer sciences professor, as well as her mother, siblings, nieces and nephew. A gathering for family and friends to commemorate her life will be held this fall.

—Jennifer Smith