How A Passion For Problem Solving Can Lead To A Career In STEM

29 Mar 2022




How A Passion For Problem Solving Can Lead To A Career In STEM 

International Women’s Day 2022 has kickstarted our 'So She Did’ podcast — a celebration of the incredible women across our community as we venture forward on our mission to inspire women to believe they can achieve anything they set their minds to.  

Over the coming months, we’ll be hearing from women and girls across a spectrum of age groups, ethnicities, backgrounds and industries. We will learn from women who have trailblazed their way to the top, ones who are still figuring it out and those who are just getting started. 

Today, we’re chatting with Deirdre Walters, Co-founder and Innovation Consultant at Untapped Innovation and Dr Kathryn Jones, Senior Lecturer at the National Software Academy, Cardiff University and Deputy Director of Learning and Teaching for the School of Computer Science and Informatics. 

Deirdre and Kathryn discuss how their curiosity and a passion for problem solving led them to a career in STEM. the power in having a diverse set of skills and how we should foster skills in young people to prepare them for careers that don’t yet exist.  

 

Listen to the full conversation with Deirdre Walters and Dr Kathryn Jones now! 

 

Great to meet you, Kathryn! Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started. 

Nice to meet you! I’m a senior lecturer at Cardiff University where I teach software engineering at the National Software Academy. After I finished my PhD, I spent 15 years working in startups and small to medium sized enterprises before coming back to academia to teach. 

 

And what about you Deirdre? 

I did chemistry at university but looking back, it wasn't necessarily something that I particularly loved and enjoyed. I was probably a square peg in a round hole. For me, it’s always been about STEM in an applied sense. I find it interesting is when things come together, rather than an isolated discipline. 

In terms of my experience, I spent 15 years working for Procter & Gamble working in R&D before becoming a founding partner at Untapped Innovation nine years ago. At Untapped Innovation we are currently developing a SAAS and training company called PowerPlay, which aims to democratize key innovation tools, making them engaging and applicable to a range of sectors.

 

That's interesting what you said there about applied STEM...

I (Kathryn) specifically remember sitting with colleagues I used to work with, and they always used to get excited about the next programming language or latest technology. But what I got excited about was solving problems making things better for people. 

 

Absolutely. When I was starting out...

I (Deirdre) went a careers evening where there were lots of engineers and people working in R&D. It just happened to be that the R&D people were quite boring, and the engineers were all talking about problem solving so I naturally gravitated towards the engineers. But after getting an opportunity to working in manufacturing early on, ironically I ended up working in R&D after discovering how important that process was for understanding how to solve problems for the end user. 

 

Kathryn, what inspired you to go into computer science? 

It’s an interesting one because when I was growing up, I didn’t even have a computer at home. We had computer labs at school and in class we used to work together in pairs. My friend was very capable with the computer would be very hands on in those lessons. After a while I realised if I always let that happen, I was never learning myself. So, I pushed myself to take the lead and realised I really enjoyed it. 
 
My parents worked hard with our local school to get an I.T. put in place at A-level. After completing that, I thought to myself “maybe I’ll go to university and do computer science” which was a bit crazy as I had never even sent an e-mail let alone code! It was a little bit of a shot in the dark, but it paid off! 

Credit to my Mum and Dad for having a vision for what I could do. Neither of my parents are scientists but they told me from a young age that I could do and be whatever I wanted to be. They said that to me every week that there was nothing I couldn't do if I put my mind to it and I began to believe it. 

 

Can you describe what challenges and opportunities you have experienced as a woman in a male dominated industry? 

Having not had access to a computer at home, there was a lot to do in three years, but I knew that if I dedicated myself to learning then I could get absolutely there. It was a massive challenge but anything that is worth getting is normally a challenge, isn't it? As a software engineer, you’ve got to be a lifelong learner. Every year that I've written software, I've got better at it. That is the key: you’ll always be learning every single day. 

I don't know if I have had a typical experience in the world of work. I've been treated very well by women and men in work — and I've been treated badly sometimes by women and men. From my perspective, it's the people themselves as opposed to my gender being a reason people might mistreat me, but that might not be the typical experience. 

The only time I struggled with things was when I went on maternity leave. The company just did not know how to deal with that process because they never had to do it before, but to their credit they were always trying hard to help. 

 

Looking at the data on women working in computer science, we're looking at ratios of 1 in 10 versus men. What are your thoughts on that? 

Currently, about 19% of our students identify as women, that’s where we are now. That’s typically the average when it comes to computer science degrees. When I went to Cardiff University however, there were about 120 students in the year group and we didn't have enough women to create a netball team. There was about six or seven in my year group!  

It has doubled since then in terms of percentages, so we've gone in an upwards direction. Lots of time has been spent looking at STEM education and trying to engage students from junior school age in the world of technology. But that number still sits or about 20%.  

I’ve worked in companies where I was the only woman and it never really changed anything for me. The guys I worked with were great – we got on well and worked well together. I can't say I've been adversely affected by being in a minority when it comes to gender within tech at all. 

 

Why do you think girls and young women are less likely to pursue an education and career in tech? 

What is interesting is how some countries which would be perceived as not equal in terms of gender sometimes actually have a much higher rate of women in STEM than countries where that are very egalitarian. If you look at countries such as Albania or Iran, in some cases they have got a much higher rate approaching 40-50% of women in STEM. 

One theory being that if you go into STEM subjects, you are more likely to guarantee yourself financial security quicker. In societies which are not so equal in terms of gender and don't prioritise gender equality, women look to get themselves in a position where they can be financially stable and independent, quicker. Whereas if you are, if you are lucky enough to live in a society that is fairer and more gender equal, then possibly you have got more financial security earlier on in your life. Therefore, you can take the opportunity to do the subjects perhaps that you enjoy more, which might not be necessarily STEM subjects. 

Perhaps it's possible that in the UK, we are in a position where people are choosing what they want to do and not necessarily doing subjects which lead better financial security straightaway. That's one theory but there is lots of research in and around this.  

  

What advice would you give to a woman about to start in your industry around a career in tech? 

I would say that it's okay to try something and then to pivot the way you go. You might do an undergraduate degree in one subject, but you can change later into a different subject with a conversion masters or through exploring different experiences. Especially in the world of tech, we have lots of students who come to us from a humanities background or from different sciences and they convert into tech and software. It's important because we can build better and more diverse software that way. I don't think you need to know the which path you want to end up on as long as you learn from each experience. 

Naturally as you get older you find yourself, don't you? As a society, we’re asking young people very early on to pick a direction and normally that direction should be a logical choice – a combination between science subjects or art subjects for example. I did a very unusual combination at A-level, I did maths and history. While that might not make sense given that I ended up in computer science, it served me really well because it taught me how to present an argument. 

So even if your experiences don’t match up with the opportunity, if you reframe it, you can usually find some cross over skills that you can bring to the table! Doing what you enjoy is important because if you enjoy what you do, you will have to work a day in your life.  

  

What do you wish you had known when you started?  

I was thinking about this the other day, what would I advise my children? I'm going to advise them to do just do something that enjoy. If they want to go to university and do a degree, pick a subject that they love because I think often you can be influenced by the thought that you need to do a degree that will lead to a well-paying job.  

I think perhaps, similar to how my parents supported me and told me that I could be anything I set my mind to, I want to tell my kids to “go and do something you really enjoy” and with hard work and perseverance you can make it a success. 

 

Discover the story of these successful women entrepreneurs

Listen to the full conversation over on Business News Wales now — https://businessnewswales.com/how-a-passion-for-problem-solving-can-lead-to-a-career-in-stem/ 

Listen to all episodes of So She Did on the Business News Wales podcast hub — businessnewswales.com/tramshed-tech-so-she-did-series/