A US Army veteran who dabbled in technology in Afghanistan dives into computer science through Northeastern Align program

A US Army veteran who dabbled in technology in Afghanistan dives into computer science through Northeastern Align program

In the mountainous outskirts of Kandahar province, in southeastern Afghanistan, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Theresa Todd led logistical operations to supply water, ammunition, and other combat equipment to an infantry battalion attached the 10th Mountain Division. It was 2011, her first deployment, and Tod helped supply U.S. forces trying to push the Taliban out of disputed territories.

Three years later, as U.S. troops withdrew from the area, Todd was back in to pick up the scraps of war, organizing the return of the same equipment her unit had worked so hard to push into the mountains. 

“It’s laughable, right?” says Todd, who is a graduate student in the Align program of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern. “The same equipment!”

Places troops had roamed freely in 2011 and 2012 were no-go zones in 2014, and Todd’s unit was now packed into a base at a large airfield. Out of boredom, she began tinkering with coffee makers, computer keyboards, and other machines she was helping to retrieve from combat outposts. 

Every day, walking to the junkyard to find more discarded machines, she would gaze out at the desert and two mountains rising over the horizon.

“That’s where my unit had been,” she says. “It was almost like I would look over these mountains every day, and I was still there. I never left. No one really leaves.”

Theresa Todd posed with children in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2011. Photo courtesy of Theresa Todd

Todd found an escape from those mountains inside the  machines and electronics that she sometimes couldn’t reassemble. This fascination for computers led her to Northeastern in January, after she turned down a job from Microsoft and finished a stint at a financial tech startup in Wall Street.  

Todd’s grandfather, Paul, had graduated with a business degree from Northeastern in the 1950s, and had died during her first deployment to Afghanistan. Coming to Northeastern was a way of honoring him.

The Center for Inclusive Computing will utilize the expertise of Northeastern faculty and recruit a set of technical consultants from other universities with first-hand experience in the best practices that have shown to narrow the gender gap in computing. Photo by Liz Linder.

“He was always proud of Northeastern, so I also wanted to come here,” Todd says.

At Northeastern, Todd says, she is learning “how to be a civilian again.” She is now a year into Align, a program that provides students who did not study computer science in college with the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in computer science. A member of the class of 2009 at the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point, Todd had studied philosophy and literature.

“I almost felt like I was brushing off cobwebs to use an attic that had always been there for me to use and wanted to be occupied,” she says. “My previous jobs were just never fully satisfying that.”

Todd estimates it will take about three years to complete her master’s degree. And she is planning to push further after that, toward a doctoral degree. She doesn’t know exactly what her doctoral research would be, but says her passion lies at the intersection of humans, computer systems, and artificial intelligence.

“These machines, these systems, these programs—they mimic humanity,” Todd says. “But what does it actually mean to be human? It means to be flawed, choosing not two good answers, but a messy question and a messier answer.” 

Megan Barry, the director of the Align program, met Todd first by email when she was accepted to Northeastern in 2018. Todd, who had been told in the military she was not going to be able to have more children, learned a week after her acceptance letter came in that she was expecting her second child. Wavering over her decision to enroll in graduate school while pregnant, Todd  emailed Barry to weigh her options. 

In this August 2007 photo, Phil McTigue (second from right) shows members of the National Interdiction Unit, a specialized counter narcotics law enforcement unit in Afghanistan, how to use a Russian PKM machine gun. The weapons were used by the unit for operations and raids on narcotics compounds throughout the country. Photo courtesy of Phil McTigue.

 “She’s really good at speaking up, asking for resources, and advocating for support,” says Barry, who serves as the primary advisor for Align students on the Boston campus. “That’s really important for women entering into tech careers, where they might need to stand up for themselves and be vocal about the things they need.”

Todd moved into an Airbnb in a suburb of Boston in the winter of 2018 with her husband, Greg Lambert, and two-year-old son, Paul. Unable to hold back a grin,  Todd remembers that old rental, which had no heating system and “certainly was haunted.” 

“Living in this haunted house that’s unheated with my kid is slightly irresponsible in retrospect,” Todd says. “But how was I going to know that the heat wouldn’t work?”

Todd’s second child, Elizabeth, was born June 15, 2019. Afraid of losing momentum, she came back to school a week after that. 

And, Todd  says, she is going to continue through wars, haunted houses, and whatever other challenges get in the way of her doctoral degree. She knows that is likely.

“When I came to Northeastern, I was pregnant and commuted two hours each way—walked  half a mile to get to the train station,” Todd says. “But that’s kind of the beauty of the story, right? Life happens.”

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