When Loren Shure graduated with a PhD in marine geophysics, she figured she would find a job working in academia. The year was 1982, and Shure had just received her degree from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, where she studied Earth’s magnetic field from both large- and small-scale perspectives.
Despite her initial ambitions, Shure ended up forging an unconventional career path outside the walls of the university system. For the past three decades she has worked at MathWorks, a mathematical computing software company, where she has held roles ranging from programming to technical support to marketing. She has co-authored several of MathWorks’ products and made major contributions to the design of MATLAB, a computing program and language that enables users to create simulations and to analyze and visualize technical information.
“I was the first person that got hired, after the founder,” said Shure, recalling her early days with MathWorks, which is headquartered just west of Boston. “I’m still there 30 years later and I didn’t expect it at all.”
In her current role with the Applications Engineering team, Shure is able to spend more time and energy working with customers. MATLAB customers range from educational institutions and commercial companies to large government organizations such as NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Shure shows new customers how to use the program and she works with existing customers to help them be more productive in their use of it, enabling them to gain the most value.
Due to her interesting career path and unique skill set, Shure was invited to be the keynote speaker at the fourth annual Scripps Student Symposium held on the Scripps campus Sept. 27.
During her presentation, titled “The Power of And,” Shure discussed her winding path through the science field and the interesting opportunities afforded to her by looking outside the box. She also spoke about finding innovative solutions to scientific problems by combining methods and techniques from multiple domains, including MATLAB.
“The general theme of the talk is that we’re all multi-dimensional, so I am not just a scientist or just a programmer. I have a very artsy side to me, and I’ve been trying all my life to express it in different ways,” said Shure, in a conversation shortly before her presentation.
One way Shure blends her artistic side with the technical is through a blog she writes for MathWorks, titled The Art of MATLAB.
“I wanted to call it the Art of MATLAB because I don’t think of computer programming as this sort of monotonous drudge,” said Shure. “There’s certainly a pattern to what you do, but I think there’s a lot of art to it, too, so I’ve tried to sort of blend the art and the technical in my way of thinking with a lot of things.”
Shure describes herself as an ambassador for MATLAB, and said the company is working on systems that allow people to work with the “explosion of data” in the world, and using these large data sets for what’s called deep learning. These deep-learning systems are the kind of systems that are being used to help autonomous driving, underwater vehicles, aerial vehicles—everything from space to terrestrial, she explained.
Shure credits her Scripps education with helping her develop important critical thinking skills, and said support from her advisor, geophysicist Robert Parker, helped her delve into the world of programming. Frustrated with the old CalComp plotter hardware systems she used as a graduate student, Shure worked with Parker to write some new software, called Plot XY.
“I just got fed up on day and I went into Bob’s office and I said, ‘I’m not going to do any research for the next month. Here’s what I think I’m going to do.’ And he said, ‘That’s a really great idea.’ And he dropped his research for the month and we just worked on that.”
The resulting software enabled Shure to more easily make any plot she wanted. “And it gave me the taste for creating tools that would make people more productive,” she said.
Plots are important tools to help communicate models, whether on a student poster or in a scientific journal, explained Shure. “Plotting is what tells the story for science, most of the time. It’s not the only thing, but it’s one big piece of it,” she said.
Following her time at Scripps, Shure completed a postdoctoral fellowship and served as a staff member at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with an adjunct position at MIT, and then she briefly worked as a programmer for a commercial company.
Next came her career-changing break: In 1987, Shure had the opportunity to join MathWorks, which was then a small start-up just getting its feet off the ground. She wasn’t sure how secure the position would be, but figured she’d give it a shot.
Pursuing a career outside of academia was considered to be a bit controversial at the time, and Shure initially received some pushback.
“I remember someone thinking that I’d wasted a space [in the graduate program] that someone else who was going into academia could have taken instead,” she recalls, “and I argued back, ‘But don’t you want someone to help create software that knows what you’re doing?’”
Kaitlin Creamer, a marine microbiology PhD student at Scripps and one of S^3 organizers, felt inspired by Shure’s presentation.
“I think it was fantastic to hear what opportunities lie ahead of us after Scripps, especially from a distinguished alumna like Loren,” said Creamer.
Shure advises students thinking of pursuing a career outside of academia to keep a “very open” mind so they can recognize an opportunity when it’s headed their way.
“You can have a really satisfying career doing other things. I feel like I help people a lot by having helped create software that makes their lives easier, and yet, I haven’t done it through academia,” said Shure. “I don’t want people to get stuck thinking that there’s only one path to take.”
– Brittany Hook