Kami Vaniea, Lecturer in Cyber Security and Privacy, tells us more about her experience as an academic in Informatics, and how she got there.
I came to Edinburgh in August 2015 as a Lecturer in Cyber Security and Privacy after a year as Assistant Professor at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing, a postdoc at Michigan State University, PhD at Carnegie Mellon and undergraduate degree at Oregon Oregon State University.
I grew up wanting to know how things work. When you live in a farming community in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, you learn how to install a septic tank and build your own bicycle. You learn a lot of mechanical engineering, so it’s not a big leap into computing and maths. I started playing with punch cards when I was very small because that’s how our knitting machine worked. Punch cards controlled the pattern output on the clothes I made for my toys. None of the cards were labelled so I had to understand how the punch holes – the code – worked to know what I was making.
It was fun!
High schools in that part of the world tend to emphasise practical skills. Fixing computers was seen as a good way to get a job. There were more opportunities to get involved than you might think and I took advantage of as many as I could. I did some computer programming at summer school, before we even started word processing on old Commodore computers in 6th grade. There was a computer recycling programme in Oregon. The machines were donated to schools. For reasons of confidentiality, the hard drives would be taken out so we had to rebuild them. I got involved. I didn’t really understand what I was getting into before I did it and I’m not convinced I knew what I was doing while I was in it - but it was fun.
Then in high school they had a scheme where you could be a teaching assistant (TA). It occurred to me that I could be the TA for the network administrator. I would show up in the morning and there would be a list of computer issues to resolve. I had a moment when I had to get into a teacher’s office to fix something and the head teacher was passing and he just let me in! Someone really believed that this was something I was capable of doing, that I could do it correctly. People respected me and asked me to do more - that’s a powerful circle.
World of opportunity
I got a Diversity Scholarship to go to Oregon State University (OSU), where I studied Computer Science. Winning a Google Anita Borg Scholarship meant I was able to meet other women engineering students from across the country, which was amazing – there were about 20 of us in one place!
I became president of the local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), which opened up a world of opportunity. I became even more involved in contests, mentoring and tutoring. I joined the College of Engineering’s new Women in Engineering student council and signed up with the Distributed Mentor Project run by the Committee for the Status of Women in Research. I was matched with Professor Elizabeth Sklar at Columbia University, New York City and spent a summer there, designing ways to teach children how to program LEGO robots. Throughout my time as an undergraduate I worked on a project – like an internship – at Carnegie Mellon, looking at recommendation systems for movies. At OSU, I became one of the Department’s first Ambassadors for Women and Minorities in Engineering. It all helped to open doors for me.
With graduation approaching, I wanted to broaden my horizons further by travelling, so I went to the Danish Technical University on an exchange scheme. I would really recommend studying in a different country if you can.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduating. The Anita Borg Scholarship made me think I would go to Google, as their approach seemed very collaborative but in the end I applied to several places, to keep my options open. I was accepted for jobs at Google and Microsoft and for a fully funded PhD at Carnegie Mellon. It wasn’t a straightforward decision. I spent a week agonising until I had a conversation with my aunt and thought, ‘One of the top PhD programs in the country has let you in, and you haven’t hit a wall yet, so why not?’ My thesis looked at the human factors of access control systems. I’m interested in making security and privacy technologies more accessible for a wide range of users.
Informatics opens more doors than you realise, to get a good job, earn a decent amount of money and make an impact. There are a lot of opportunities in this field. There is a deficit in the number of computer scientists out there, women or men. We need more of them.
I chose to be an academic instead. Getting a PhD is not the way to earn the most money over your lifetime but it isn’t bad. If you want to understand something thoroughly, if you want to spend three years becoming an expert in your topic and then go further, academia is the place to be.
What skills do you need?
If asked what skills you need to get on in this field, I say it takes an interest and a wiliness to learn, the same as other disciplines. People who like science and are good at maths tend to enjoy it more. I don’t see any difference between the men and women I’ve met in terms of skills. One of the nice things I like about this School is that our girls have plenty of opportunities to mix with other women.