The beauty of computer science

MariaV.jpgMaria studied Philosophy and Mathematics at the University of Turin, Italy. After moving to London, she pursued an MSc at Imperial College London and remained there for her PhD. During her PhD she worked in the field of theoretical computer science, establishing limits of distributed computation. Maria has worked in the field of semantics of programming languages where formal techniques are developed in order to build bug-free software or for discovering bugs and security weaknesses in software. Maria has also worked in the field of queuing theory, which helps in establishing the performance of complicated systems. Over the last few years, Maria has studied product-form solutions for stochastic processes and developed some very novel and deep results in that area. Product-form solutions have the great advantage of expressing stationary distributions in high-dimension stochastic correlated processes as product of the accordingly modified stationary distributions of each stochastic process component. These results are obtained by describing the state space of the stochastic processes using formal rigorous techniques derived from the field of semantics of programming languages. Maria tells Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-founder and co-organizer, her inspirational story about how she discovered her aptitude for mathematics, and juggled a young family with her PhD work to realize her dream of being a computer scientist.


SS: Hi Maria, what made you decide to become a computer scientist?

MV: When I was a child I always admired scientists, not only because they seemed intelligent and could improve the state of world and increase our knowledge, but I also admired them for their moral stamina. In some cases, like Galileo, scientific discoveries come at a great personal cost. As a child, I admired that quality of believing in the evidence as opposed to following “fashionable beliefs”. Having said that, my perception was that only “clever people” could become scientists, not me. Coming from a working-class background, I had no idea how people ended up working as “scientists,” I just admired them, and read about their discoveries. At university, I started to study philosophy because I wanted to understand the world around us, and I never thought of myself as “scientific person.” I do not know why I had this prejudice about myself, because I always liked science and mathematics; after a couple of years, I realized that my own fear was preventing me from studying something that I really liked. So I started to study mathematics as well, and I completed my first degree with a final year project on second order logic. Logic and computer science are very much related, so during my degree I took a few courses in computing. This led me to start an MSc at Imperial College London, and there the opportunity to pursue a PhD arose. I grabbed that opportunity with both hands; it was a dream which  has become true.


SS: You already had two children under the age of three when you started your PhD. How did this effect your studies?

MV: in all honesty I never thought that this was a problem. On the contrary, my children helped me to keep sight of what was important. It did require a great amount of discipline, and a lot of support from my wonderful husband. In fact, I feel that it is wrong to say that my husband “supported me”, as if his rolewas minor in our family life. We are equals partners in every sense, and I have always trusted him as he trusts me. During my career I have travelled a lot, occasionally I have been away for months for research visits. I have never had to worry about home, in the same sense that when my husband travels he does not worry about home. Nonetheless, I have always missed home during my travels. I think this experience gave my children a clear idea that their parents have an equal role in their upbringing. I truly loved working on my PhD as I believe every PhD student does, with all its ups and downs, but at the end, I would only change one thing: a bigger PhD bursary, which would have helped a lot to cover the costs of childcare. Other than that, I feel I have realized a dream.


SS: It’s a real inspiration to young women, to know that it is possible to be a mum and a scientist, especially in the early career staged.  Is your dream still alive?

MV: Yes, I still feel I live my dream, and I am thankful to Great Britain and Imperial College London for having allowed me carry out research for so long.  After my PhD I changed area of research and I started to work in the field of performance evaluation and queuing theory. It was like starting a new PhD, but I loved it as well. Because I have expertise in various fields of Computer Science, I have been able to carry out rather novel research by using techniques of various fields in different ways.

I love my job; it is hard sometimes, but when I succeed in solving a big problem, the satisfaction simply cannot be described. I lived the first twenty years of my life in a council flat, not really believing that the life of research was for me, and now being at my desk, spending time thinking about hard problems in security, or on social media, or in fundamental problems in computer science, and teaching very interesting and bright students, or meeting other scientists to discuss problems, it is simply unbelievable.


SS: Maths and computing is one of the most challenging topics to explain to the public. Tell us why you wanted to take part in Soapbox Science.

MV: I have always enjoyed talking to the general public about computing. It helps me to gains a fresh perspective in the field, and to fall in love with computer science again. When I work on an article or a problem, the details are very important, and sometimes I lose the sense of the global picture.

I fully support the Soapbox initiative as I think that more women could be in science. Women sometimes feel they don’t belong in academia, despite their abilities. In particular in computer science,  women are deeply missed. I want to show women that computing is not about programming and games, or being a nerd,  it is about understanding how to reasoning about  problems with algorithms – rigorously following a procedure to obtain a result. It is rather baffling that many women do study mathematics, but only a few take a degree in computer science. I have been giving talks in secondary schools about what it really means to embark on the journey  of studying computer science.  I hope to use Soapbox Science to help the public discover the “beauty of computing”.


Be seduced by the beauty of computing with Dr Maria Vigliotti on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: “Be aware! Computing is everywhere!” Maria’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship from L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London. 

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