Success in the world of computing and information science

‘I agree with one recent study that found that for almost 60% of women, the biggest obstacle when choosing a professional career was the assumptions attached to "men’s” and "women’s” professions’ So says Lucija Brezočnik, who, at the age of 25, has already written herself into the history of computing and information science.
Last summer, Lucija Brezočnik, assistant professor and doctoral student at the Maribor Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, became the first female winner of the award for best student paper in the field of computer and information science. The competition has been running for 50 years and is organised by Region 8 of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which brings together professionals from the fields of electrical engineering, computing and information science from the whole of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

For the IEEE Region 8 competition, the commission chooses five finalists solely on the basis of the content of their paper, as the authors have to submit them without their signature and without mentioning the faculty they attend. Only after the five anonymous papers have been selected do the commission find out who is behind them, as their authors then have to present them in person (which goes towards the final assessment). Lucija Brezočnik triumphed over three competitors from Belgium and one from Hungary. 

Could you start by telling us, in simple terms, what the topic of your winning entry was?
I work in the field of computational intelligence and machine learning, which is currently a very attractive field, particularly because we are living in the period of big data, which is something we are no longer able to process without certain intelligent solutions. 
In my paper, I presented an algorithm that makes it possible for us to mine, from a mass of data, that data that might help us make better decisions.

Your findings are therefore very useful in practice. Are you considering testing it in a business setting?
I’m currently working as an assistant professor at the faculty and am also doing my doctorate, so an immediate transition to industry would not be possible. After I finish my doctorate, though, I don’t rule anything out. Industry certainly has certain advantages over research. 

Do you think Slovenian industry collaborates enough with research institutions?
I think there’s quite a bit of collaboration. What I miss more is the involvement of enterprises during the study process itself. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look across the border or overseas to see how large companies try and attract the best students when they’re still studying. I believe students would make a greater effort during their study if they saw, right at the start of their studies, that diligence and hard work would be rewarded with a job offer. Young people would also see that there are good companies in Slovenia too and that they don’t need to go abroad. 

Young people leaving for other countries, particularly highly qualified young people, is a big problem in Slovenia. Are you considering it as well?
I want to finish my doctorate first, then I’ll decide what to do next. I wouldn’t rule out a move abroad, of course.

Does Slovenia offer young people opportunities for personal and professional development? Where do young people find themselves in Slovenia?
It’s sad that we only see what a capable workforce we have in Slovenia when someone goes abroad and achieves something. It’s also sad that the state invests money in education, but has no mechanism for keeping young people in the country at the end of the education process. 
It should not be a source of pride to the country that increasing numbers of young people are opting to go to neighbouring Austria or even further out into the developed world. This trend is particularly noticeable in Maribor and the Maribor region. On the other hand, I completely understand that decision. The starting salaries for comparable positions are significantly higher in Austria, the annual extra month’s salary is a legal requirement, and overtime is paid.

In your opinion, what should young people base their study decisions on?
Of course, there’s no one piece of catch-all advice about the correct choice of study. Nevertheless, I would advise young people who still haven’t made up their minds about which course to choose to gather as much information as possible on the faculties they’re considering, and to attend the course presentations given on open days. If nothing else, they will at least find out which courses or faculties to dismiss, which is also a useful exercise. They should choose their type of study independently and not under the influence of their parents or friends. 
In my opinion, you can be successful at any faculty you choose if you are sufficiently motivated to study, work at your own initiative and are not satisfied with the average. Many times, while students may complete their studies, they remain content with ‘average’ and then don’t find work. I would advise pupils and students not to choose the easiest path. Taking a risk pays off in the end. 

Did you have any reservations before enrolling that you were entering a programme in which there were few women?
I didn’t concern myself with those questions before choosing my course of study. I have been interested in technology since childhood, and the fact that studying information science at FERI was the right choice for me kept being confirmed right the way through my years of study. For me, it is best to opt for a profession that excites you and that you will enjoy doing regardless of any prejudices regarding its suitability for a person of your gender. Results count, which means you can be successful whether you’re a woman or a man.

Why do you think there are so few women in your profession?
I agree with one recent study that found that for almost 60% of women, the biggest obstacle when choosing a professional career was the assumptions attached to ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ professions. Unfortunately, many people still believe that engineering is primarily a man’s profession. Another reason for this is the lack of visibility of successful women and female mentors, who could get young girls excited about studying technical subjects. We also cannot ignore the fact that choosing a course and, later, a profession is a matter of personal decision. I don’t see the point of ‘persuading’ women to choose a course of study such as computing or information science. But we can tell them that they won’t be alone in this profession. It is true that there are many fewer women than men, but I hope there will be more of us in the future. 

Author: Polona Movrin

The full interview was published in the special issue of GZS Glas gospodarstva.