Sharon Laskowski ’75
by Emily Groff
Ever since she was 13 years old, Sharon Laskowski, Class of 1975, knew she wanted to study math and science. Although that was an unusual choice for a girl at that time, she persevered, choosing Trinity because of its small size and its strength in science, math, and engineering. Of her time at the College, she said, “It was great to be allowed to grow in the fields that interest you,” and she remembered several “wonderful and encouraging math and engineering professors.”
Laskowski continued her education at Yale University, where she received her Ph.D. in computer science. She was one of few women in the computer science program, and although she says people were often surprised to hear her major, she adds, “If people are surprised, then they don’t have any preconceived notions about you.” After her graduation, she taught at Pennsylvania State University before moving to Washington, D.C., to work at the MITRE Corporation.
Fifteen years ago, Laskowski joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. Today, Laskowski manages the Visualization and Usability Group in the Information Technology Laboratory at NIST, and studies the usability and accessibility of computer systems to ensure that their interfaces are effective, efficient, and satisfying to users.
In accordance with the Help America Vote Act, NIST is working with the Election Assistance Commission to developing new standards for voting systems. They analyze all aspects of voting, including reliability, accuracy, security, usability, and accessibility, to ensure that voters can vote easily and as they intend to, without errors. Laskowski’s group focuses on the usability and accessibility standards and also develops methods to test voting system design and performance to ensure that both voters and poll workers can use them easily and accurately. They’ve created a set of requirements called the Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines that systems must meet in order to be certified by the Election Assistance Commission. In November 2008, the NIST team received a gold medal from the Department of Commerce for scientific achievement in voting.
Beyond examining voting technology, Laskowski’s group has been testing biometric devices for usability, evaluating intelligence analysis tools, and has also developed usability standards with the International Standards Organization. Laskowski says, “Better usability gives companies a better return on their investment. Employees spend more time working and less time struggling with the interface or on the phone with the IT help desk.” She enjoys the hands-on nature of her job and the opportunity to work on high-impact projects. In addition to the Election Commission, she has worked with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, DARPA, and I-ARPA. She says, “It’s hard to find a place to work that lets you have so much impact. It’s the most interesting work I’ve ever done.”