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Facing Her Toughest Test

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In her four years at Morgan State University, Maria Richardson aced nearly every assignment given her -- no small feat in a field as technical and demanding as electrical engineering, her major.

She earned a 3.87 GPA -- highest in her electrical engineering class of 66 -- and along the way won raves from her professors and mentors for her work in the rarified world of electrical impedance technology, perfecting a device for "seeing" beneath a person's skin.

She has the world at her feet; in a field with a shortage of both women and African-Americans, she has been showered with money to pursue graduate studies.

The University of California, Berkeley, one of the country's top engineering schools, is holding a place for her in its Ph.D. program this fall. Meanwhile, Lucent Technologies, a leading telecommunications company, has offered her a summer job researching controlling computers by voice command.

But with doors of opportunity opening for her from coast to coast, Richardson faces her biggest test to date -- one particularly difficult for an engineer, because there is no quantifiably right answer.

She has come to one of those proverbial forks in the road of life.

One path would take her to Berkeley, a prestigious school in a thriving city. But Richardson hates flying and has never been away from home for more than a week or two. She frets about being 3,000 miles away from her parents, her 14 brothers and sisters and her 31 nieces and nephews.

The other path would take her to the University of Maryland, College Park, to which she applied recently. Though maybe not as stellar as Berkeley, it also has a highly regarded engineering school, with the compensating advantage that it's only a 45 minutes drive from the West Baltimore home where she grew up.

Assuming she gets in, she could continue to go home every weekend to do laundry, check her mail, play with her nieces and nephews and go to Mass with her parents. She could keep seeing her boyfriend, an engineering student who plans to attend graduate school at Morgan State next year.

"Everybody's encouraging me to just go do it in Berkeley," she says. "My teachers, my friends, they all say just do it."

But Richardson, the second youngest of her parents' large brood, still can't make up her mind. She worries about the expense of California -- even though Berkeley has promised her money and she has won a prestigious $100,000 grant from the Packard Foundation to pursue her studies.

What's more, she worries about living so far from everything familiar. She wonders: Who will she room with at Berkeley? What if she runs out of money in the middle of the school year?

And this, from a scholar who has learned in the past four years precisely how a telephone carries a voice from California to Maryland and makes it sound as if it hasn't traveled any distance at all: "I don't know anyone to call."

Unlike many, Richardson has never felt the need to get away from home in her first 21 years. The daughter of a homemaker and a teacher, she flew in a plane for the first time only last July to present a paper at the World Conference 2000 on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering in Chicago.

She was away from home for a week; the only other time she can remember being away for so long is when she visited one of her siblings in Philadelphia for a week.

Though her professors say she has a natural curiosity, to date Maria has focused it almost entirely on books.

Learned in high school

She discovered her passion for math and physics at Western High School, a selective citywide public school. She always knew she would go to college, like most of her siblings, and when she asked her teachers what she should major in, they suggested engineering. She took their advice -- but not without trepidation.

"Engineering is so intimidating," she says. "In academic situations I always felt kind of iffy. I told a friend about it and he says it's ... because I'm trying to protect myself from not doing well. I always have low expectations. So that's probably it. But I think I've been getting over that as I progress."

She doesn't fit the stereotype of the smart-alecky engineering whiz. She's shy, tentative, chuckles often. In her free time, she likes to play with her nieces and nephews, read mystery novels and roller-skate in a park near home.

She's always wanted to try ice-skating, she says, but can't quite get up the nerve to try to balance on that itty-bitty blade.

She doesn't leave much to chance if she can help it. Last week, she had packed up her entire dorm room days before she had to move out, saving the stereo for last so she could relax to some classical music at night. And before a big test, she always asks her family to pray for her.

Pamela Mack, chairwoman of the department of electrical and computer engineering at Morgan, says she became aware of Richardson's abilities during her freshman year when other professors started raving about her work. Last year, Mack encouraged Richardson to apply for the Packard grant.

Richardson's response was typical: "I was like, OK, sure, but I didn't really expect to get it," she says. Several months later, she got the acceptance letter at her parents' house -- all her mail still goes there -- and was so stunned her mother thought something was wrong at first.

Richardson also didn't consider getting a Ph.D. until one of her professors, Charles Johnson-Bey, suggested it. He still remembers the look of surprise on her face when he mentioned it.

Johnson-Bey, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, says that while other professors praised Richardson's acumen, he was surprised to find that she wasn't doing so well at first in his class, "Introduction to Digital Logic." He spoke to her about it, he says, and almost instantly she turned her performance around.

"I can't say enough superlatives about her," he says. "Of all the students that I've encountered, both here and as an undergraduate and graduate, she is probably in the top 3 percent." After her first year at Morgan State, Richardson joined the Signal Processing and Sensors laboratory research group and for the next three years devoted much of her free time to studying electrical impedance tomography, a technology health researchers use to get images of the body beneath the skin.

"They send currents through the body," she says. "If the impedance is uniform, there's nothing there. But if there are strange impedances, there's probably something there."

Specifically, she was working to improve an early model of the emerging technology so that one day it can be used to detect tumors in the body.

Richardson spent 10 to 20 hours a week staring at a computer screen in a narrow, dark lab in the engineering building at Morgan.

James E. Whitney, the assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering who runs the research group, says, "You meet a lot of people who may have the talent to do the work but may not apply themselves." Richardson, he says, has both ability and drive.

It has never been hard for Richardson to muster the discipline she needs to succeed: "I just do it," she says.

When asked to describe her 14th child, Anne Richardson throws out three adjectives right away: "Calm, cool and collected." Then she pauses. "And educated."

'Not selfish'

Catherine Richardson, an older sister, says Maria is always giving presents to her many nieces and nephews, though she doesn't have much money to spare. "She gives with what she has," Catherine says. "I don't care what scholarships you get, you still need money, but she's not selfish at all."

This summer, before heading off to graduate school, Richardson has that job with Lucent in Murray Hill, N.J. She'll be working with a man who specializes in controlling computers with voice commands.

Before college, she says, she would have had no idea how to contribute. Now, she says simply: "I have some insights."

Eventually, she says, she wants to work on "signal processing." Asked what that means, she starts talking about the telephone and how the voice is a signal that needs to be processed.

"Your voice has to go a long way, so you have to amplify it and send it and along the way it's going to be distorted so you have to clean it up and filter it and send it again," she says. Richardson says she has always enjoyed the process of figuring out those nitty-gritty details.

As she stands at the crossroads pondering her future path in life, Richardson doesn't always feel quite confident.

Although she feels prepared for her new summer job, Richardson admits she's feeling a little nervous about living so far from home for the first time. "I think, oh, I'm not going to see my family every day."

But, she says, she's excited to try something new. When she gets too anxious, she reminds herself, "It's just New Jersey. You can actually drive there."

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