A quick google search of women in computer science in Botswana will bring up the name of Dr. Audrey Masizana. She was the first woman with a Ph.D in Computer Science in Botswana, and is a pioneer in research as well. She is also the Head of Department of Computer Science at the University of Botswana. So why Computer Science? She answers this question in this interview.
Q: Your first degree was in mathematics, modelling and simulation. How did you choose this?
A: An accident would be an appropriate answer. Career guidance was not strong at the time when I was growing up. It never occurred to me that I could be a scientist. Our teachers are the ones who influenced our choices. Since I had good grades in science and mathematics, I was labelled a scientist. After secondary school, I did pre-entry science for 6 months before proceeding to the University of Botswana(UB), where I had to choose which of the sciences to pursue. I eliminated Chemistry because I didn’t like it. Biology was next because the lab work involved touching rats. That was out! I was left with Physics and Mathematics, which I enjoyed. At the time, we would do 2 years at UB and 2 years in any University worldwide. So I had to choose something to major in. I was looking for something that incorporated both physics and mathematics. There was a course introduced in UB for the programming language, Pascal. I enrolled for that course and I felt this was the merger that I was looking for. My interest grew and computing became the application area that brought in maths and physics. As I was searching for courses, I was advised to find a course with mathematics. “You need to know how maths is used to provide real solutions.” That is how I ended up taking a degree in mathematics modelling and computing at Kingston University in the United Kingdom.
Q: What does mathematics modelling and computing?
A: It is basically the applied mathematics that we do in secondary school. You have a problem and you have to come up with a mathematical approach to solve the problem. It is trying to use mathematics to quantify a problem that is, most times, not quantifiable. Then, using a wide range of software to solve these problems. I got to see how everyday gadgets such as traffic lights are run by mathematics. We learnt programming the hard way where we got to appreciate the code. The degree gave me just a glimpse of computing.
Q: What differences are there between what you learnt and modern computing?
A: There was no user interface at the time. We had to do things the hard way, reproduce code from a book, type it on a black screen and try things with the code you reproduced. Nowadays, the code is on the internet and it is just a matter of copying and editing. It was exciting for us witnessing the transition of computing, with the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1992. Nowadays, teaching tools are shells, which is a layer of programs, which is also programmed to work a certain way. For example, Microsoft Word is a program which was coded so that it can appear as it does and the users can use it. Computer science also changes everyday. I have to learn new technologies such as cloud technology, data mining and warehousing.
Q: How did you get start working at the University of Botswana?
A: On my return, I registered at the Ministry of Education, who had funded my scholarship. They identified potential employers, who called me for open positions. I felt that I still had more to learn and wasn’t ready to work. Someone suggested joining academia, so after some thought, I went to UB, which had just started the department of Computer Science. The Head of Department was surprised that I wanted to join academia because they had been looking for skilled people. He sent me to the Human Resource Department and that is how I was hired.
Q: How did you get to be the first PhD in Botswana?
A: I was employed as a staff development fellow, but since the department was relatively new, there was no structure for me. So I went for my masters in Computer Science at the Oxford Brookes University in the UK. I had to do a Postgraduate diploma in Advanced Computing as a bridge to computer science since I had more mathematics than computing in my background. After 2 years, I was qualified and returned to Botswana. The government had just set up the localization policy and the department felt that I needed to be trained to a higher level. So, I went back to the UK for my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Manchester. I completed in 2004.
Q: Working in academia, what has your experience been?
A: To start with, the HoD had always made me accountable and responsible even as I was learning. I came to a department with very little qualified staff, and I was in training so that I could come back and be responsible for the department. I started teaching when I came back. I was also given the big tasks, such as industry relationship and making the department visible. I was relatively young for the things that I was made to do. I had to get used to meeting decision-makers. I always felt a bit insecure but it was my responsibility, so I did what I could, and with God on my side, things worked out and people started appreciating what I was doing. When time came for the HoD to exit, it was almost planned for. Of course, there was some discussion at higher levels, but for me I have always felt that it is a responsibility I can’t dodge.
Q: What challenges do you face as a leader, both in your field and of the department?
A: There is is also a lot of expectation that comes with the position, title and level of education. You are expected to know everything. Computer science changes everyday but if somebody asks me something that I don’t know, it is a shock to them. “You don’t know? With all those degrees?” Even if you do not know, your qualification means you must be an expert in it. Whenever the word computer is mentioned in the community, I am automatically placed there. At times, I get questions from government on certain issues that I have no knowledge of. Luckily enough, there are people in the department who are willing to work with me and produce results within a few hours. This is a challenge, has put me in many unpleasant situations. So I have to study to keep up with the trends, because of the expectation that I am talking about.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: Exposure. I get lots of invites to functions, seminars, conferences, talks, events and so on. I get to learn more especially in the areas that I am interested in. I also get lots of opportunities, so I do appreciate the exposure.
Q: What do you like least about your job?
A: On the flipside, getting invited to events and being expected to attend all of them can be overwhelming. I was once at a meeting in South Africa, where a representative from the Government was not present, and I was asked to present something on behalf of Botswana, with 5 minutes preparation time, on a subject I had little knowledge on! These are the un-pleasantries that come with being in a position of leadership. It is also a huge responsibility with a lot of work involved.
Q: How do you balance your commitments, with family?
A: I travel a bit and work after hours, which is a habit that I am trying to drop. I have one child who has accustomed to my life. In terms of family, there are women who are doing much more than me with bigger families and bigger challenges and they are managing. These women inspire me. I have got one child, I have some privileges, I should be able to handle it. It should be done.
Q: What inspires you in life?
A: I am inspired everyday by what is happening around the world and how people survive hardships, against all odds. Whatever they are going through is harder than what I am experiencing in life, and yet they have faith and get things done. I wonder what drives such people. This makes me reprimand myself for my laxity and to stop whinging.
Q: Has there been an increase in the number of women in Computer Science, both students and staff?
A: Right now, there are 8 women in the department and we are expecting 2 more PhDs from women. I like to see other ladies coming up, take up more responsibility. In terms of enrollment of students, there is a fair amount of girls coming in. Computing has different levels, it offers both hard and soft toys for all genders, because gender preference in career selection is a reality. Computer science is a clean job which can be done anywhere, and women are equally intelligent as men. I think women are doing well. We encourage them of course, hopefully by having done it, we become models, we want to pretend that it is working, hoping that it goes to show we can do it.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: Music. I listen to jazz all the time. Earl Klugh is one of my favourites. I was exposed to jazz at a really young age. When I was 18, my brother in law who I really admired always played jazz, and I hated it. When I was at the UK, I started playing it when I missed him and just started liking it.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I still have 2 years as Head of Department. After that, I would like to go into research and provide solutions that impact the community. I would like to put together all the knowledge that we have on our identity as a country in terms of historical information, practices, food, methods et cetera. I believe that technology can be used to look at data, collect and classify it and turn it into a treasure. And I would like to start with indigenous knowledge. I already have one student developing an expert system for herbal medicine which would recommend what to take based on symptoms.