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QM Student: Nela Brown

Friday 29 November 2013

Nela Brown, a PhD student from the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, was the only student to be shortlisted in the Leader category for the recent Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) awards. She talks to us about her nomination, research and getting more women into science.

Nela joined QM in 2010 after working as a freelance sound artist. She has been Chair and leader of G.Hack, QM’s ‘hacking group for girls‘, for the past 30 months, promoting its activities through networking, talks at events and conferences and as a guest on ‘women in tech’ panels. She recently spoke at Campus Party Europe at the O2. She was also the Chair of WISE@QMUL, an inclusive society which provides information and a networking platform for those interested in female participation in science.

Nela was nominated for the Leader category, which aims to celebrate someone of either sex who has led the way in promoting female talent in science, technology, engineering or mathematics in education, research, business or industry. The judges awarded special commendation to Nela, who whilst completing her own PhD, has set up innovative programmes to inspire girls and young women to engage with the male dominated field of computer science. 

Congratulations on being shortlisted for a WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) Award. You are one of two shortlisted candidates from Queen Mary [the other is Professor Ursula Martin, also from EECS] – how does it feel to be recognised alongside other distinguished nominees?
It feels amazing to be the only PhD student shortlisted for the WISE Leader category alongside Professor Valerie Gibson from University of Cambridge and Tricia Goodchild from University of Northampton.

Prior to coming to Queen Mary, I always thought you had to have some sort of business degree or an MBA to be a ‘leader’. However, I have since realised that to be a leader you need to observe what is going on around you, and at some point put yourself forward by suggesting ideas and asking people to join you in addressing issues or improving things.

Universities are perfect playgrounds for practising your leadership skills and I would like to encourage anyone who has any kind of idea about a project to ‘raise their hand’ and have a go at making things happen.

You’re a PhD student at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science – what is your research looking at?  
My research is in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) for children and I am looking at different methods of gathering requirements for design of technologies for communication and experience sharing within families with primary school children.

Why did you choose to come to Queen Mary?
My colleague Robin Fencott (who I studied with at Middlesex University) was doing a PhD at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science and recommended I check out the school research groups and see if there was anything that could align with my own interests.

I was very impressed by the cutting edge research being done at EECS and even though there was no research group specifically looking at Human Computer Interaction for Children I decided to send a proposal in and see what happens.

The EECS academic staff are so passionate about their research and their teaching commitments and the EECS support staff are ALL absolute STARS! It is going to be very sad having to say goodbye after I finish my PhD.

In your opinion, how can we get more girls to study what some say are ‘harder’ subjects like maths, engineering and physics?
There isn’t a single approach to make this happen. There needs to be a combined approach to challenge the perception and to make every woman think these subjects are fun and easy. Part of this involves creating role models for girls to relate to and giving them hands on access to what a career in STEM subjects might mean.

For example, running workshops and events for girls where they can learn about coding and mess around with circuit boards to make something of interest and relevant to their life and age group in a supportive environment.

Another approach is by running events at schools in collaboration with industry partners, for instance getting a female engineer from Facebook to talk about what she is working on, what her daily routine looks like, what she had to learn to do her job and how she kick-started her career.

The idea essentially is being able to connect the STEM field to real-life career possibilities.  

You’re clearly an advocate for public engagement and have been involved in speaking at many big events – what are your top tips for public speaking?
Just do it! When I started my PhD I was really reluctant to speak in front of big groups of people so I made it my mission to say ‘yes’ whenever anyone would ask me to do so!

What do you hope to do after your PhD?
Solve problems that need solving. A bit vague I know, but at the moment I am in a 'Queen Mary box' looking in and trying to focus on finishing my PhD.

As soon as I look outside of this box, I see there are many other issues that I could turn my hands to, and many different environments I could find myself operating within. It could be academia, it could be industry or it could even be a start-up.

You can find out more about Nela here: http://nelabrown.blogspot.co.uk/

You can find out more about WISE here: http://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/about-us

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