Margaret Kahles Guyder ’72 Was First Woman To Earn Ph.D. in Computer Science at Rensselaer

February 21, 2023


The first doctoral degree in computer science ever earned at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was in 1969. The sixth was presented to Margaret Kahles Guyder in 1972, and it was also the first ever earned by a woman.

Sadly, Guyder passed away recently at the age of 93. As her family made plans to honor her, they reached out to confirm the milestone.

“It was good to hear that you have verified that Mom was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in the field of computer science from RPI,” said her daughter, Cheryl. “What an honor for her! My brother and I had long believed that she was the first, and we value your verification. Mom loved and respected RPI.”

Guyder, who was known as Margaret Kahles Brown at the time, titled her dissertation “An investigation of Newton-like methods for calculating critical points with applications to nonlinear boundary value problems.”

“Dr. Guyder’s work on optimization methods would have placed her among a small group of trailblazing women in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in computer science,” said Dr. Mohammed Zaki, professor and head of the computer science department.

In 1972, computer science fell under the mathematics department at Rensselaer. Today, computer science not only has its own department, but it is one of Rensselaer’s most popular fields of study.

“Computer science was established as a department at RPI in 1984, but it has grown rapidly, reflecting the central role of computing in today’s advances,” Zaki said. “Optimization algorithms also remain an important area of study, for example, finding applications in machine learning and AI, among many others.”

Guyder was an assistant professor of mathematics at Skidmore College when she earned her Ph.D. at Rensselaer.

“As a mathematician and pioneer in the then-new field of computer science, I wanted to use my skills, obtained through studies at RPI, to also serve Skidmore College,” Guyder said. “Long before classes in computer science were part of the Skidmore curriculum, I was teaching some rudiments of programming as extensions of my calculus class, hand-carrying the key punch cards to RPI, running them on my own account, and returning the listings to the students in class.”

At that time, Guyder was the only faculty member with training in computer science at Skidmore. She is credited with helping to build the computer science program there.

Although it is still a male-dominated field, Guyder’s achievements paved the way for thousands of female computer scientists at Rensselaer, Skidmore, and beyond.

Written By Katie Malatino
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