Laurie Hendren thought she was destined for a career in medicine. After completing two years of her undergraduate degree, she was accepted into medical school at Queens University. But one computing class changed the course of her life.
“It was instant love,” says Prakash Panangaden, Hendren’s husband of more than 30 years and fellow faculty member at McGill University. “Laurie joked that getting into medical school was difficult, but getting out was even harder. Before she was allowed to withdraw, she was made to talk to the Dean of Psychiatry who confirmed she was of sound mind.”
With her career firmly directed towards computer science, Hendren completed her BSc and MSc at Queens before receiving her PhD from Cornell University. After graduating, Hendren established a distinguished career at McGill University.
An accomplished career
Her colleagues and friends described Hendren as a brilliant researcher and teacher as well as a role model for women in computer science. Her impact in the field started while she was still a student. For her PhD thesis, she pioneered new program analysis methods for detecting aliasing and interference in programs manipulating pointer-based dynamic data structures. After graduating, her research focused on program analysis, parallelizing compilers, aspect-oriented programming, and applications of program analysis to software engineering.
“With her research, there was so much that she accomplished,” says Panangaden. “She was probably most recognized for her the suite of software tools she developed called SOOT. The tools were widely known. When people learned she was from McGill, they would ask, ‘Do you know the people who developed SOOT?’”
Hendren was recognized for her work throughout her career. In 2009, she was elected as a Fellow of the ACM. In 2011, she held the Canada Research Chair in Compiler Tools. In 2012, she was elected to the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada. Shortly before she died, Hendren was awarded the Dahl-Nygaard Prize, which her husband accepted on her behalf in 2019.
A lasting impact for cancer patients
“There were two aspects to her career,” says Panangaden. “One was fairly technical, and she won accolades for that work throughout her life. The other side came from her response to cancer. She wanted to fix the health care system.”
Hendren was most proud of OPAL, the app she developed with the McGill University Health Centre.
“During her cancer treatment, she would have these long wait times. She’d be given a 9:30 AM appointment but wouldn’t be seen until 1:15 with an explanation that there was a back up. She didn’t want to complain; she wanted to do something.”
Working with her radiation oncologist, and a medical physicist and a team of students, she developed an app that allows patients to check in when they arrive at the hospital and get updates on the wait time. The project has expanded to provide blood test results and other vital information to patients.
“She made a huge impact on patients and created a culture shift that allowed patients to access their information without having to wait for the doctor.”
Hendren and Opal were recognized with the Prix de cancerologie and the 2019 Prix d’excellence du Ministere de la Sante et des Services Sociaux. Today, more than 600 cancer patients use the app, and there are plans to expand the service to other clinics.
Family, music, and hockey
Outside of her work, Hendren enjoyed life with her husband and her daughter, Jane Panangaden. She also had a deep interest in music, the outdoors, and hockey.
“She loved hockey,” says Panangaden. “She started a women’s ice hockey league at Cornell. The computer science team was called The Flying Diskettes. In Montreal, she started a women’s league.”
When playing hockey became harder, she focused on her music and played bassoon and baritone saxophone in a local ensemble. Born and raised in Peterborough, Ontario, Hendren spent her summers at the family cottage in Chandos Lake and loved to sail and swim.
“She taught herself how to windsurf using a book. She taught me how to windsurf, and she was so good. She would yell instructions from the dock explaining things so well.”
Teaching came naturally to Hendren. She was awarded the Leo Yaffe Prize for outstanding teaching in the Faculty of Science in 2006.
“She was very active with her students. Whether they were freshman or PhD students, they were important to her. At her memorial service, both undergraduate and graduate students paid tribute to her.”
Her husband also remembers Hendren for her zest for life and the impact she had on those around her.
“She had a competitive edge,” he says. “She never let anything hold her back. She knew what she wanted and went after it. She was also a strong advocate for women’s rights. She was a fun-loving person and a good friend to many. Her loud infectious laugh will never be forgotten.”