Profile of 'Sexiest Geek Alive'

July 25, 2001 -- She's MIT cubed, with three degrees from academia's geek central.

Thelicense plate on her electric car reads V EQ IR. (That's Ohm's law: Volts equals current times resistance.)

And she teaches her students at Mills College to count in binary on their fingers.

At the age of 11, she ran electricity through her braces to get theattention of a fellow geek in her fifth-grade classroom. And she grew up and married — what else? — a rocket scientist.

Not Your Average Nerd

Her name is Ellen Spertus, and she's not just your average computer nerd.

Last month, Spertus became the Sexiest Geek Alive.

"I entered [the pageant] because I wanted to be sure there were womenincluded in the contest," she says. "I didn't want female geeks to beinvisible."

They weren't.

Spertus and seven other contestants — two of them women — beat out nearly10,000 other nerds to appear in the competition's final round, held in San Jose, Calif. Produced byImark Communications and online magazine Geek & Guru, the contest, in its second year, is aparody of People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" feature and is designed toprove that geeks can be chic.

Spertus was.

Corset and Circuit Board

She appeared onstage in a black corset with a circuit board design and aslide rule strapped to her thigh — à la Sandra Bullock in MissCongeniality.

"It was my dad's slide rule when he went to MIT," sheexplained. "He gave it to me for graduation."

She showcased her talent in a video montage of her life, highlighted by an endorsement from Richard Stallman, high priest of the free softwaremovement.

"I would describe Ellen Spertus as extremely lovely," he says.

The judges agreed. Spertus walked off with the title, two tickets to a geekCaribbean cruise (it includes lectures by high-tech luminaries and seminars on computer programs like Perl and JavaScript), and the chance to raise public awareness about the role ofwomen in computing.

"A few days before the pageant, I started asking myself, 'Am I just making a spectacle of myself?'" she said, laughing. "'Do I even want to win this thing?'"

She decided she did — not for the cruise, or even the accolades, but for thechance to talk about life as a female geek.

"The number of women earning bachelor's degrees in computer science has declined every year since 1985," she says. "And that's not true in the other sciences. Things aren't getting better; they're getting worse."

Women Not Taken Seriously

That's because boys get involved with computers at an earlier age thangirls, Spertus suggests, so they have a head start by the time they reach high school.

And because male culture predominates computer science programs.

"At MIT, as at most computer science programs, almost everyone in my programwas male," she says. "I tried to hide my femininity as much as possible.Women who didn't were either harassed or not taken seriously."

It's one of the reasons she took a job at Mills, an all-women's school in Oakland, Calif.

"Here, I'm not considered deviant because I'm female," she says.

Had shebeen at a co-educational institution, where most or all of her colleagueswere male, Spertus says she would never have considered entering the SexiestGeek Alive competition.

"It wouldn't have been acceptable, or it would have opened me up to allkinds of other issues," she said

Mills works hard to draw students into computer science, including offering "bridge" and interdisciplinary programs that allow students with other kindsof backgrounds to combine their expertise with new skills in computing.

That kind of innovation helps draw women into the discipline, Spertus says.

So does standing onstage in a circuit-board corset and a Sexiest Geek Alive crown.

"I don't equate geek with antisocial loser," she says. "Geeks areintelligent, enthusiastic people full of curiosity and passion.

"I am married to one. And so is my husband."

A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of Virtual Ethics. Wired Women appears on alternate Wednesdays. Her column planned for Aug. 8 will instead appear on Aug. 15.