Inspiring in Any Language

By Marcia Faye
Martha Evens Yearbook
Martha Evens [far right] and other faculty members from Illinois Tech’s Department of Computer Science in a photo from the 1976 yearbook Integral
Photo: Courtesy of IIT Archives

Martha Evens was born on January 1, a day that traditionally symbolizes hope, dreams, and new ways of thinking. It is an apt birthdate for Evens, who would go on to make seminal contributions in computer science and to mentor more than 100 doctoral students since joining the Illinois Tech faculty. While her work in natural language processing and intelligent tutoring systems is considered significant, she perhaps is equally recognized for the role she played in the lives of her students, many whom have gone on to become notable faculty members, finance leaders, chief technology officers, and even university presidents.

“Martha is very well known as someone who put her heart into being there to help students; she’s very much loved,” says Eunice Santos, Ron Hochsprung Endowed Chair, chair of the Department of Computer Science, and professor of computer science at Illinois Tech. “She’s also an incredibly humble person,” Santos adds. “You’ll learn more about what Martha’s done from everybody else than you will from her.”

In a phone conversation from the Evanston, Illinois, home she shares with her husband, Len, Evens recalls that languages and computers filled her life from an early age. The daughter of an attorney and an architect, both educated at Harvard University, Evens was proficient in French and Latin by the time she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, where she learned German and Greek, and graduated with a mathematics major and a Greek minor. She completed a year in Paris as a Fulbright Scholar and shortly before she graduated with a master’s in mathematics from Harvard, her husband-to-be told her about an opening for a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory working for artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge. She worked on the first spelling correction program at Lincoln Lab for two summers before undertaking a series of moves as her husband accepted faculty positions at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley, before accepting a permanent position at Northwestern University.

“My husband is a mathematician. But he knows a lot about computer science, partly because when I was getting my Ph.D. in computer science, if I knew something, he had to know more,” says Evens, with a laugh. At Berkeley she collaborated with a group of linguists and wrote a program to parse sentences in Mandarin Chinese. In 1975 her turn to become a faculty member arrived as she began teaching at Illinois Tech one week after defending her doctoral thesis at Northwestern University.

At Illinois Tech Evens did her most influential work, exploring how computers process and understand human language. In 1984 she was president of the Association for Computational Linguistics, an organization of people across the globe interested in natural language processing. She had a pivotal role in developing IITLEX, a lexical database useful in supporting various computer programs and individuals of varying linguistic backgrounds. When her student Ibrahim Al-Kharashi told her that his homeland of Saudi Arabia needed information-retrieval experts, she worked with him to form the Arabic Language Processing Laboratory at IIT, which was active in the 1990s. Evens also received funding for 12 years from the United States Office of Naval Research to build CIRCSIM-Tutor, an intelligent tutoring system using natural language dialogue. The program, created for Rush Medical College cardiovascular physiology students, went through several iterations beginning in 1988 before funding for it ended in 2006.

At 82, she is now an emerita professor and continues to referee journal papers on natural language processing. Evens will be recognized later this year with the inaugural Martha W. Evens Endowed Lecture.

“My colleagues and the IIT staff have been tremendously supportive and my students have been wonderful,” she says. “I was very lucky to have been offered a job at IIT.”