BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium: Event Report

Apr 16, 2012 by

BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium: Event Report

The fifth annual BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium took place a the University of Bath. The day was designed for undergraduate women in computer science and run by BCSWomen, which is the largest group for women in IT/Computing with 1382 members.

The day included a mix of formal talks, networking opportunities and poster presentations from students. DevCSI ran a contest during the event offering five student travel bursaries to attend DevXS in Liverpool later this year. We were impressed with the number of enthusiastic responses we received.

This was really inspiring event, with talks from some amazing women, and a friendly and supportive vibe. Here is a summary of the topics covered…

Keynote: Gillian Arnold

Chair of BCSWomen
Arnold began by describing her own career at IBM, where she stared out teaching mainframe technology with “all these Oxbridge men” but soon found she could compete because she had practical user experience, enthusiasm and the bravery to go for it.

Arnold emphasised the huge need for IT support across industry in the UK, and the opportunity this represents for women, who currently make up only 18.7% of those employed in the science, engineering and technology sector, despite making up 44.5% of the total work force. She highlighted the McKinsey report, which showed that companies with more women at board level have better earnings before tax and better stock price growth. She also noted that where there are women managers, there are happier workforces, speculating that this could be due to the difference in management styles as women tend to favour transformational management styles over the transactional management style used by many men.

Arnold offered a wealth of practical careers advice to the students. She advised them about finding the right organisation and interviewing them to ensure they get the support they need to further their careers. She also stressed she importance of the opening lines of a CV, as employers will look at it for just 6-8 seconds.

Once in employment, Arnold noted that women don’t show off enough. She argued that women need to prove their value and ask for a pay rise each year to help reduce the gender wage gap, which is as high as 44% in some sectors. She advised students to keep track of what they have been doing throughout the year and how much people have appreciated this. She acknowledged that asking for more money can be scary, but if you name your price and can demonstrate your value, you are more likely to get a pay rise.

Arnold concluded by discussing the importance of networking: a key component of the day and a vital skill to learn, as job opportunities often come through people you know.

Dr Amanda Clare, Aberystwyth University

Using Computing to Inspect DNA
Amanda Clare began by explaining that the choice between an academic and an industry career is not an “either or” ultimatum. She advised the students not to pigeon hole themselves, and described how her own career has taken her between the two: through AI, bioinformatics and lecturing in computer science.

Clare outlined the historical connections between computing and biology before discussing her own current work, which asks the question: “what’s in my DNA?” She explained that the role of computer scientists is to help analyse and use the huge amounts of data that are becoming increasingly available as the cost of sequencing genomes comes down. She illustrated this by describing some of the processes involved in analysing DNA and the constraints involved in amplifying DNA primers, and by detailing the processes involved in work at Aberystwyth examining the bio crop miscanthus.

Her talk emphasised the importance of dialogue with the biologists: computer scientists cannot analyse the data in isolation. She helped to inspire the students to look into different areas of research where computer scientists can have a role, without necessarily having any pre-existing domain specific knowledge.

Joanna Smith, Takeda R&D

Joanna Smith also gave an overview of her career in IT, most of which has been within the pharmaceutical sector. She described some of her personal highlights – including the roles of IT lead for successful SAP implementation and global IT lead on business transformation projects – to illustrate how awesome a career in IT can be.

Smith observed that there is no other profession that gives you the variety of options within the same sector. She has never held a role for more than three years, as she has got bored and moved on to something else. She outlined her typical month to illustrate the type of things her current job entails and explained how to survive a day in the office. Her advice included developing good relationships, sharing problems, helping others, and recognising how you react to pressure and developing some coping strategies.

She also gave advice about how to be successful in IT. In particular, she discussed technical specialism verses IT management, and the importance of being able to talk IT to non-techies – an area where women have the edge and can act as a huge bridge which many businesses desperately need. She also stressed it is important not to make assumptions and be prepared to change your mind.

Image by Claire Suaze


Monika Podsiadlo, Google

Text-to-Speech Synthesis
Podsiadlo provided an overview of Google’s text-to-speech synthesis work by defining the different types of text-to-speech, including canned speech, limited-domain slot-and-filler, and fully flexible speech synthesis. The latter is the focus of Google’s work and is what is required to synthesise text from books. This requires very artful database design, including a text processing module for producing cleaned up speech, plus a speech synthesis module. She provided examples showing how the computer needs to decode speech, including the different ways numbers may be vocalised depending on the context.

Podsiadlo went on to describe the different ways a voice file can be built, including lexicon and grapheme-to-phoneme sequences. She also discussed the common algorithms used in the field, including concatenative synthesis or unit selection (which is the favourite with audiences, as it can really sound like real speech when the database is designed well) and statistical based synthesis or HMM-based synthesis, which allows you to generate waveforms statistically, so there is no waveform to store and no audible joins.

There are still considerable challenges, including quality, user-interaction issues, increasing the number of languages and synthesising emotions in speech. However, Podsiadlo concluded by emphasising that whilst they need more engineers, more talent and more energy to tackle these problems, the results should be well worth the effort.

Julie McCann, Imperial College

McCann provided a whistle stop overview of her work on sustainable cities. She described the types of urban monitoring required to create sustainable cities and provided the example of green data centres, which use the excess heat to warm nearby housing projects.

She went on to discuss wireless sensor networks, which have been made possible by technological miniaturisation using small processors, small radios and small sensors, which are approaching the status of smart dust. However, there are challenges involved in using these technologies: the sensors can be inaccurate, so tracking the trustworthiness of the sensor is important. There are also resource issues, interference issues and environmental issues to consider, as wireless sensors need to operate in conditions that are not encountered by other computing devices. These issues are collectively known as cyber-physical challenges.

McCann explained that to solve some of these problems they are borrowing techniques from nature. She illustrated this with an example using the pulse coupled oscillation model algorithm observed in fireflies to help solve convergence problems. However, she observed that just because something works on one piece of hardware and in simulations does not mean it will work in the real world. Computers work in different ways to nature, so whilst nature can suggest solutions to some of the issues, considerable challenges remain when putting these principles into practice within computer systems.

Panel Session


Image by Claire Suaze

A panel of industry and academic representatives took a range of questions from the students about recruitment practices, CV writing, finding a mentor, and the ideal breadth and depth of knowledge in certain languages for a successful career in computer science.

The students were also keen to hear from the experts on questions about how to use LinkedIn effectively when job hunting, and how to use blogs as evidence of a passion for what you do. The panel were very enthusiastic about seeing evidence of student involvement in open source projects on applications.

In return, the students were asked how to combat the falling number of girls going into computer science. One of the main issues identified in this debate was the teaching of ICT in schools, which focusses on spreadsheets and secretarial skills rather than programming, and where students often find they out-class their teachers due to poor quality teaching.

DevCSI Competition Winners

We had some great responses from students entering our completion to win one of our five travel bursaries for DevXS. Here our five winners tell us why they are passionate about programming…

“Create software that influences and help people. Passionate about making things work.”
Ivone Sima from University of Westminister

“Because I find it immensely satisfying solving problems logically and creatively using programming languages and paradigms. (It’s fun!)”
Anita Woodruff, University of Bath

“Because I can’t imagine a world without programmers.”
Sophie Drake, University of Bath

“Why not? You can build a whole world in an afternoon. It’s hard, but if it wasn’t then it would be boring. You find a problem in the real world and fix them by imagining solutions and building them :-) + it’s fun!”
Heidi Howard, Cambridge University

“Programming has become a necessity, technology is everywhere. It has so much potential and that in itself has me excited. Why would you not want to be a part of that?”
Catherine De Roure, University of Bath

Well done to all our winners! We look forward to seeing you all at DevXS in Liverpool.
More photos from this event are available here.

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