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Ada Lovelace’s legacy: inspired and inspiring

Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science and technology but behind this are the remarkable achievements of the very first computer programmer.

August 04, 2016

Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) – but behind this are the remarkable achievements of the very first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace was the worlds first computer programmer; she began algorithm development back in the mid-nineteenth century. That’s over 150 years ago! This is especially remarkable because the first computer, Charles Babbage’s mechanical ‘Analytical Engine’, was still unfinished at the time.

We have the benefit of hindsight, in our digital age, but Lady Lovelace only had theoretical discussions to follow on how Babbage’s complex gearbox would output dashes on paper.

Clearly she had tremendous visionary skills, as she predicted that such a machine could encode music – she foresaw mpeg digital music files before going anywhere near a keyboard, screen, or even music playback devices.

Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine, built by Babbage, as displayed at the Science Museum (London). Credit: Bruno Barral

Trial model of a part of the Analytical Engine

Little wonder, then, that Charles Babbage befriended Ada Lovelace. In her own words, she had a “peculiar way of thinking” about mathematics, and her insights clearly inspired Babbage – he was highly complementary about her, calling her an “enchantress of numbers”.

Ada Lovelace is chosen as the inspirational figurehead for women in science for very good reason – she remains an exemplary role model. However, the importance of contemporary female role models in inspiring young women to enter STEM subjects today is still all too evident.

Close to home.

We have a fairly good record regarding ‘women at the top’ (our Directors of Science and Operations respectively, are women, for example), though this is exceptional in the wider industry.

Christine Fosker, Head of Research Faculty Office at EI tells us about her female role model in science:

“My role model is Dr Jane Rogers. Jane has played a pivotal and inspiring role in the era of genomics in the UK from delivery of the Human Genome Project to the sequence of the bread wheat genome. She has by some margin, the greatest number of citations in the scientific literature of any British female scientist, primarily in the top-ranked journals, notably Nature and Science. The humanitarian and commercial consequences of the work to which she has contributed are incalculable both for the UK and the world. Throughout her career pursuing projects of ambitious scale, Jane has still taken time out to befriend, mentor and care for her staff and students, championing the interests of others lending her support and guidance.”

Dr Audrey Heppleston, formerly a Project Manager in the Research Faculty Office at EI said:

“Although women are well represented in most academic fields at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, their presence gradually declines at higher stages, particularly as professors.“

“This phenomenon is often referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’ and is one of the priorities addressed by the Athena SWAN Awards. EI has recently established a self-assessment team to review our policies and procedures and ensure that women and men can equally advance their scientific careers. As part of this work, the institute will join the Athena SWAN charter.“

“Our own Director of Science, Federica Di Palma, is an honorary professor in Biology at the UEA. We are very proud to have such an accomplished scientist leading by example in genomics and computing in our executive team!”

Role models.

Federica Di Palma, Director of Science at EI, tells us the role models that inspired her and her own experiences and views on woman embarking in STEM careers.

Federica, what were the female role models that comes to mind when you think about your own career pathways?

Many. I pick my role models according to the stage of my life and career. My first role model was my mother. A full-time career and a mother of four. She taught me to be strong, proud and that there was nothing I could not do.

Then there have been many others (men and women), mostly strong and successful women. Not just successful in their career and management of work-life balance but also inspiring, authentic and in general, successful in their personal life too.

As a woman, mother, and Director of Science for a research Institute, how do you juggle your work and life balance?

I have answered this many times and here is my secret recipe: a good husband and a good babysitter.

These days, which are in your perspective the top three challenges inherited to woman embarking in STEM careers?

1) Persistent discriminatory social and cultural norms. Unconscious gender bias in the workplace.

2) Therefore, for a woman to be successful she needs to work twice as hard as a man in the equivalent position.

3) Shortage of good role models/mentors and sponsor/advocates for women.

Do you believe the issues associated with gender in pursuing an academic career are exclusive to this environment or the same further afield?

I only have my experience, but I have been involved in many women initiatives and from what I have learned, it is like this everywhere.

Federica’s top tips to keep in mind as a woman in STEM:

1) Work hard, be determined and be creative.

2) Be ambitious, defiant and maintain a positive attitude.

3) Be prepared to make choices.

4) Respect yourself only then can you demand respect from your peers.

5) Pick good mentors (men or women).

6) Maintain always a good life balance.

7) Don’t forget to leave time for networking.

Open quote marks

Unfortunately, HPC has been, and most likely will continue to be, strongly dominated by males.

Closing quote marks

Women in High-Performance Computing (HPC).

Tim Stitt, Head of Scientific Computing at EI, shares his views on why there is a lack of women in the high performance computing industry and what we can do about it:

How many woman have you meet working in HPC throughout your career?

Unfortunately, HPC has been, and most likely will continue to be, strongly dominated by males. The general HPC practitioner, in my experience, comes into the field because: they have a strong interest in advanced programming; usually like to administer computing systems; and love experimenting with cutting-edge computing technology.

Each area in its own right probably has poor female representation never mind the union of them all. Recent statistics show that women make up only a quarter of the technology workforce. To give you some HPC-specific figures, two recent HPC conferences in the UK had 5.1 per cent and 9.2 per cent women representation, respectively.

What in your mind are the top three aspects that led to this gender bias in HPC?

Another aspect is that there is a worldwide dearth in HPC talent (both male and female) so the gene pool is small to begin with. Because HPC is rarely ever introduced at the undergraduate level, women don’t come across it until they have to use it as part of a graduate programme. At that point most students have already selected their programme of study and only see HPC as a tool rather than a potential career.

Also, most of the best women technologists have left university at undergraduate level for highly-paid careers in industry and will probably never ever come across HPC. So we have lost that potential before even getting started.

How can EI encourage woman to embark in a HPC career?

Our training and public engagement teams can potentially help with this by promoting HPC to young schoolchildren and helping to influence undergraduate curriculums to introduce HPC at much earlier stages. Helping support initiatives like the UK’s Women in HPC network could also be very helpful.

HPC is leveraged in many diverse and interesting sectors that many people are not aware off. From animated movies, to computing the weather, to the design of Pringles and baby nappies, large HPC systems perform the large number of calculations that are needed to model various phenomena in science, engineering, entertainment and business.

In HPC we have the mantra “the country that out-computes, out-competes”. It is critical that women are instrumental to helping us compete and one way they can do that is by encouraging more of them to enter HPC.

“The work we do at EI involves deciphering and making sense of the genetic codes of animals, plants and microbes. I see no reason why gender has any bearing on a person’s ability to carry out research in genomics and bioinformatics – or any other arm of science for that matter! I hope we can inspire a new generation of Ada Lovelaces to come and join us in this most exciting branch of the biosciences”, Professor Dylan Edwards, former Interim Director at EI.

What are your experiences of gender bias in STEM fields? Have you been affected by it?

Who were your role models? Let us know in the comments section below.

Article author

Hayley London

Marketing and Communications Officer

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