Women in computer science: a “problem-solving” approach

Dr Beate Grawemeyer from the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab and Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, reports on the research seminar led by Professor Niki Trigoni from the University of Oxford.

(L-R) Professor Niki Trigoni, Professor Alex Poulovassilis and Dr Tingting Han

Does a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) pose specific challenges for women? What are some of the challenges facing women pursuing a Computer Science career in the University sector? These questions were among those explored with Dr Niki Trigoni, Professor of Computing Science at the University of Oxford, who visited Birkbeck on 28 June 2018 to deliver a presentation on her current research and to discuss the challenges facing women in STEM. The event took the form of a conversation between Professor Trigoni and Dr Tingting Han, Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems.

Professor Trigoni began with a research presentation on the topic of context inference and control in artificial intelligence (AI)-driven cyber-physical systems. She explained how by analysing the data gathered from ubiquitous sensors, it is possible to make sense of a human activity in built environments such as homes, hospitals, and construction sites. She discussed how AI and Machine Learning techniques can be used for integrating different kinds of sensor data, inferring human activities, and reacting to human preferences. She also highlighted how crowdsourcing can be used to generate additional high-value data, including for inferring a map of an unfamiliar building from the pathways that humans follow through it. Professor Trigoni concluded with a discussion of the privacy concerns around gathering and processing raw sensor data.

Her presentation was followed by lunch and a networking opportunity for the attendees, and a discussion with Dr Han. During the discussion, Professor Trigoni talked about her early passion for computer science, which stemmed from her interest in mathematics and its real-world applications.  She discussed early positive experiences of studying mathematics and working in the IT sector in Greece. After this, she completed a PhD in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, then a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University, and she took up an academic post at Birkbeck.

Professor Trigoni discussed reasons why there may be a lack of women in computer science in the UK, including girls’ experiences in schools and within their families.  She noted the possible implicit negative impressions relating to women’s careers in computing but observed that these may now be reducing as some progress has been made as more women in the UK are entering the field of computer science. However, it is important that encouraging women’s careers should not be at the disadvantage of male computer scientists. Instead, computer science can be made more interesting for women by, for example, relating it to subjects where women are well-represented, such as biology.

To attract more women to the discipline, the current focus on “coding” should instead be replaced by a focus on “problem-solving”, which is a much more gender-balanced skill learnt in school. There should also be a general raising of the status of engineering and computer science as career paths, including higher relative salaries, as is the case in other European countries. Finally, in terms of pursuing a career as a woman in academia, she highlighted the importance of travelling and networking for career development and progression and the fact that this may be challenging for women if they have a family with young children.

In a working environment where there are more women, particularly senior women, who have gone through similar experiences themselves, there may be more understanding and support available.

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Self-representation: do you really know yourself?

Satwat Bashir, MSc Cognition and Computation student, reports on Dr Lara Maister’s Science Week talk.

Dr Lara Maister

In our daily life, we spend a great deal of time focusing on ourselves; whether we are buying shoes, preparing for a job interview, posting on social media or impressing a date. But how exactly are we aware of ourselves? Do we ever think about it? Ehh… no.  When Donald Trump described himself as a ‘not smart, but a genius and a very stable genius’, he was accused of being mentally unhealthy and lacking self-awareness. But scientific research is beginning to reveal that people’s self-awareness is not as accurate as we think, despite the fact that we are the only ones in the universe with direct access to every thought and feeling we come across. Lara Maister’s talk took a very thought-provoking, curious and engaging way to share the science behind our ‘selfhood’. What could be more interesting than to know about your own body and mind?

At the start, Lara gave a general introduction on how we perceive the ‘self’. She made a distinction between two often-related forms of ‘self’, namely; bodily-self and conceptual-self. She explained the conceptual-self as concerning our beliefs, feelings, preferences and attitudes, and that its formation and development is strongly related to social interactions and comparisons. In contrast to this, bodily-self is understood through our subjective experiences of bodily ownership and physical appearance. For example; I experience my body moving when I tell it to move, and I always have a mental image of how I am appearing in the world. Interesting!

Lara went on explaining the cognitive neuroscience story behind these selfhoods and how these two forms are malleable and can influence each other, eventually changing the whole ‘self’. First focusing on the ‘bodily self’, she discussed a rare neurological condition that leads to the loss of the sense of bodily ownership which has motivated the investigation into the nature and processing behind our ‘self-hood’.

The rubber hand illusion is one of the methods used to probe the ‘bodily self’. Researchers were able to induce a feeling of ownership over a prosthetic hand, using synchronous visual-tactile stimulation. She explains that it is basically the result of the brain’s ability to synchronize the touch felt on real hand with the touch seen on the prosthetic hand. This discovery extended the scope of bodily illusions investigations and researchers are now able to produce and observe the similar effects with other senses that result in illusory body ownership, like voice illusions and face illusions.

Lara kept the curiosity high and went on unfolding the mysteries and shared the studies in which she and her team tested how accurate people are when they picture their appearance in their mind, compared to what they actually look like. She uses a task, which allows participants to develop a ‘self-portrait’ via the computer, which represents how they think they look in their mind’s eye. The results showed people are generally good at predicting their facial characteristics; for example, if someone has a bold nose or striking eyes, their self-portrait will have these features, so in general, people are well aware of how they look like in the real world.

The most attention-grabbing result from her investigation demonstrated that participants’ beliefs about their personality traits influenced what their self-portraits looked like. For example, if they think they are considered neurotic in their social circles, then their self-portrait contains such features that look ’neurotic’ – irrespective of their real facial features. A very interesting example shown by Lara was of two females which are very alike in their physical appearance, but they have exactly opposite self-conception about themselves; one thinks she is attractive and trustworthy and other thinks she is unattractive and untrustworthy. Importantly, they made very different self-portraits too; the one who believed she was unattractive and untrustworthy saw her face as being much less attractive and agreeable than the participant who was more self-confident. Why is this so? Another mystery! Lara explained that researchers believe our feelings and beliefs about ourselves affect our bodily mental representation of our own appearance.

But how is self-esteem affecting the representation of our bodies, as well as our faces? Lara shared another investigation focusing on self-esteem and our mental images of our body shape. The results are very fascinating and confirm the previous finding that self-esteem plays a significant role in a person’s beliefs about themselves and that most of the time we are inaccurate in determining how we look. Specifically, the researchers measured the hip size of people’s mental pictures of their own bodies, and what they thought a ‘normal’ body looked like. Not only were people’s mental pictures of their body shape quite inaccurate, the data pattern depicts that hip size is inversely related to self-esteem; the larger the hip size of the self-portrait, the lower the self-esteem. So, what’s going on with our self-esteem, and how can we know our true selves?

The studies explain a variety of phenomena from our daily life, ranging from our choices when buying clothes, to our social worth and comparisons. Lara excellently explained a potential method to look into the self in different personality disorders, as well as mental disorders such as dysmorphic disorders and eating disorders.

The investigations are still ongoing and we are anxiously waiting for the new findings so we can better understand and welcome our true selves!

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Volcanoes without borders

Neill Marshall, undergraduate Geology student, discusses a recent event on diplomacy in scientific research, as part of Birkbeck’s 2018 Science Week.

Studying Earth Sciences offers unique opportunities to travel to remote and exciting places around the world, and this has certainly been the case for geophysicist Dr James Hammond. As part of the #BBKScienceWeek 2018 talks, Dr Hammond presented his work on Mount Paektu, a remote volcano straddling the North Korean and Chinese border. He spoke of the unique experience of studying a poorly understood active volcano capable of catastrophic eruptions that has a significant cultural importance to all Koreans.

The cultural significance of Mount Paektu

Mount Paektu is the highest point on the Korean peninsula with importance to all Koreans as a strong-hold against the Japanese invasion. Dr Hammond described how it is the symbolic birthplace of the communist revolution and Kim Jong-il was thought to have been born there. Now many North Koreans go on a pilgrimage to Mount Paektu to rejoice in their leader’s birthplace. Dr Hammond showed videos of performances of the mass gymnastics at the Arirang Festival depicting Mount Paektu and of school children singing songs about the volcano.

Geopolitics and science diplomacy

Studying a volcano in a politically volatile region rarely visited presented Dr Hammond and his colleagues with logistical and diplomatic challenges. Following the increased activity at Mount Paektu, North Korea called out for collaboration with world scientists. It took two years of negotiation between the UK, US and North Korean governments with involvement from the Royal Society and the AAAS before a joint North Korean-UK scientific expedition could be mounted.

Dr Hammond and his colleagues became the first western scientists to visit the Mount Paektu volcano observatory. Dr Hammond described how the project ultimately enabled scientific communication with North Korean scientists allowing knowledge to be shared between this politically isolated nation and the wider scientific community outside North Korea.

Scientific interest in Mount Paektu

Dr Hammond gave a brief background on the eruptive power of Mount Paektu describing the last large eruption in 946AD as one of the biggest eruptions in human history. He described colossal eruption, bigger than Krakatoa in 1883 and on a similar scale to the Tambora eruption in 1815, with deadly lahar and pyroclastic flow deposits in the region.

Despite the scale of the 946AD eruption little is known about the volcano. It does not lie on a tectonic plate boundary unlike the vast amount of volcanoes on Earth.

Recent activity has been observed at the volcano in the form of earthquakes, increased gas emissions and deformation of the volcano. These are key indicators that the magmatic plumbing system is recharging.

The deployment of seismometers in a linear array was an attempt to use seismic waves to image the Earth’s crust near to Mt Paektu. He explained the processes involved in deployment; meeting local farmers, dignitaries and North Korean scientists; dealing with mountain weather; and travelling in this remote region.

Dr Hammond explained how seismic waves can be utilised to image the Earth in a similar way to a CT scan of a human body. From this method of imaging, a low seismic velocity zone was found 7km beneath the surface was found. Combined with other analysis of seismic velocities the results suggest the presence of fluid (likely magma) in the crust beneath the volcano.

However, more research needs to be done to fully understand the volcano with the key question of why this volcano is present in this region is still yet to be answered. Dr Hammond is planning an additional wider deployment of seismometers (potentially in 2019) to try and answer this question.

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Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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