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Celebrating Asian–Pacific American Heritage Month: Bessie Lewis
Bessie Lewis says she wasn’t exposed to a lot of computer programming when she was growing up in Macon, Georgia, in the 1990s, but two things happened while she was in high school that set her on the path to becoming a software engineer.
“My uncles—who were computer programmers—pitched in to buy a computer for me and my two younger sisters, and I really enjoyed working with it,” says Lewis, of the Asymmetric Operations Department. “It was a Macintosh that had these amazing graphics capabilities for its time, which really intrigued me.”
Then she was accepted into the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program, a monthlong summer program for gifted students, where she was introduced to programming. It was enough of a hook for her to pursue a degree in computer engineering and later a master’s in computer science, both from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Lewis has been at the Laboratory since 2003, and over the last decade she has worked on critical software projects that have helped sponsors with a wide range of challenges, from analyzing complex sets of data to protecting operating systems. Her first project at APL involved developing an application to help intelligence analysts navigate very large graphs of data—such as social networks—to gain insights into human behavior. “It basically provided a way to visualize complex information,” she explains. “It was written in Java and had this user-interface component, which I really enjoyed.”
She also worked on a project to develop ways to detect malicious changes made to an operating system. “It’s relatively straightforward to tell if an operating system’s code has been modified,” she explains. “But it’s trickier when we talk about the operating system’s data, which are constantly changing. How can you measure the integrity of an operating system’s execution and ensure that the system’s code is performing its intended functionality? That’s a much tougher problem.” The solution her team came up with—Method and System for Program Execution Integrity Measurement—was awarded a patent in 2011.
The ability to work on such a wide range of projects is what she enjoys most about APL. “I love the technical prowess of this place,” she says. “My career has evolved into different areas, and it’s always been exciting and interesting.”
These days she’s at work on an equally challenging project: a memoir of her father’s life. Her father, Nai-Chuang (Nick) Yang, was born in China in 1941, in the midst of World War II. “His father—my grandfather—was off fighting the Japanese at the time,” she says. “He led thousands of men in battle, and his position afforded him and his family a certain lifestyle: a big house, servants, bodyguards.”
But when China fell to communism in 1949, they were forced to flee, along with approximately two million Chinese, to Taiwan. “My father was about 8 when he and his family emigrated,” Lewis explains. “And life was very different. They went from having a chauffeured car to having nothing, not even shoes. But they were blessed in that they were able to take the entire family.”
Her grandfather made a living through a variety of ventures, including selling newspapers and delivering soy milk. “Unbeknownst to him, one of his customers was someone who had once served under him in the Nationalist Army,” Lewis says. “When by chance he bumped into my grandfather and realized that he was his former general, he shook my grandfather’s hand but was clearly unnerved. But, according to my father, my grandfather assured him that all was well. He was just happy to be able to make a living and keep his family together.”
Lewis grew up listening to these stories of her grandfather, and of her father’s childhood. “He would tell us these stories as ways to impart life lessons,” she says. “Finally I decided that as the oldest child, I needed to collect them and put them on paper.”
Her father’s story is one of perseverance and persistence, she says. He came to America in the 1960s to get his Ph.D. in chemistry. Then he met Lewis’ mother, Cho-Jinn (Jo) Yang—who also grew up in Taiwan—and they returned to the States together. He held teaching positions at the University of Minnesota, Agnes Scott College outside of Atlanta, and Wesleyan College in Macon, an institution held in high regard in the Chinese community for having educated the storied Soong sisters, three Chinese women who were, along with their husbands, among China’s most significant political figures of the early 20th century. He left there 20 years ago for a position at Middle Georgia State College, where he still teaches.
“Both my parents have always emphasized the importance of education, and my sisters and I had the most supportive and encouraging environment, one that supported our studies and encouraged our interests,” she says. “It’s been interesting tracing my father’s journey from China to Taiwan to America. He was looking for a better life for his family, his three daughters. Today, one is a pediatrician, the other is a Rhodes Scholar, and then there’s me. He and my mom have been amazing parents and they often express how proud they are of us.”