ADMORPH researcher talks about her interest and experience as a women in CS

Martina Maggio is a Professor at the Computer Science Department, Saarland University, having a partial affiliation as an Associate Professor at the Department of Automatic Control, Lund University. She completed her Ph.D. at Politecnico di Milano, working with Alberto Leva on the applications of control-theoretical tools for the design of computing systems. During her Ph.D. she spent one year as a visiting graduate student at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, working with Anant Agarwal and Hank Hoffmann on the Self-Aware Computing project. Then she joined Lund University in 2012 as a postdoctoral researcher, working with Karl-Erik Årzén on resource allocation for cloud infrastructures and real-time systems. She became an Assistant Professor in 2014, and then Docent and Associate Professor in 2017.

Where does your interest for CS originate from and how did you come to study CS?

I think my interest comes from being exposed to computers from an early age in a playful manner. Seeing small assignments (e.g., write a program that computes my age in days) as games helped me build some confidence and develop skills that otherwise would have been more difficult to acquire.

When I was a child, my dad brought home first a Commodore 64 and then our first computer. Initially, I was mostly fascinated by gaming and games, but soon he started explaining how the programming side worked, and helped me write the first few programs in Basic. He also insisted that I’d learn how to type fast and prompted me to follow a course (developed as a series of exercises) to learn the position of letters on the keyboard. A lot followed from that, I felt I was progressing fast and I could speak with this strange machine and have it do what I wanted. Even though I was interested in many other topics in school, that fascination stayed with me. Then the Internet came, and I felt there were so many possibilities open for somebody who understood what was going on underneath the computer, so I decided to study computer engineering.

How was it for you to study CS, such a male dominated discipline?

It is undeniable that females are less represented than males among CS academics. However, I never really felt discouraged by the fact that CS was a male dominated discipline. I had impressive role models during my studies.

One of the best professors I had is Donatella Sciuto. I had the pleasure of sitting in her “Computer Architecture” course, and her teaching style is just fantastic. She was really able to capture our attention as students. It was not only because she was very clear in her explanation. We could see the amount of energy she put into her lectures. As a student, I hated waking up early to get to lectures at 8am, except when she was the teacher.

I did not feel that my fellow students were treating me differently because I was a girl. Whenever there was a situation in which I experienced some discrimination (first-hand or second-hand) I felt supported and appreciated by my friends and colleagues. The episodes of “discrimination” that I personally experienced could be related to gender, but also to many other things – among which I would rank my temperament pretty high, I was never an easy one to deal with.

Of course, prejudice exists. And I had – sometimes – the feeling that some teachers would have initial bias towards me as a girl. But I think I always found people that were able to judge me for what I could achieve (and not for my gender), and look beyond their original bias.

Did you ever have the feeling that, as a female student, you had a disadvantage compared to male students in the field?

I don’t think I had a disadvantage as a female student.

I studied with many male friends, we exchanged opinions and had interesting and intense technical discussions. I learned a lot from them and I think they also learned from me. In our exchanges, often I would come up with a different way of learning something. Research shows that it is likely for females and males to learn in different ways and I think the diversity of the environment I grew up in was enriching.

Progressing in my career, I think being a female has both been good and bad for me. I think I had access to some opportunities really early in my career, because our research communities are pushing to reach an acceptable level of diversity. At the same time, my experience seems to confirm the studies that females are more prone to self-doubt and lack of confidence.

What do you think is necessary to attract more female students to the field of CS?

I think we should stop treating females and males differently, starting from a young age. Based on what I experienced myself, I would say we need to go to schools and teach rudiments of CS with games, to really young kids. Let them be entertained and learn by playing, without considering them different from one another. Keep encouraging them, regardless of their gender, to pursue something that they like. Make sure they remember the fun they had as young adults. And of course, make sure they have good role models.

What you expect from the ADMORPH project and its potential impact?

The idea behind the ADMORPH project is to create a new generation of adaptive embedded systems. These systems should be able to understand their requirements and execution environment, and morph to adapt to it. In particular, we look into faults and security attacks as the two main sources that generate the need for adaptation.

From the personal side, I expect to interact with like-minded people, who are curious and want to find new technical and technological solutions for a problem that is becoming bigger and bigger every day. When the systems we are using increase in their complexity (as it is the case in many different domains now) it becomes extremely difficult to verify and validate their behaviour in every possible circumstances. This is even stressed in situations (like cyber-attacks) in which we do not know what this behaviour can be. I think we are all eager to work on a problem that we see as a threat to the safety and reliability of the technology that we use every day.

What kind of ideas do you want to bring to the project?

Realising this vision requires expertise in many different areas. I bring into the project a perspective on control theory. During 2019, I spent 10 months at Bosch Corporate Research for a sabbatical and I started to work on the resilience of control systems that can miss their deadlines. Connecting this with the ADMORPH project, deadlines can be missed because of faults or attacks. For the system under control, the result is very similar: they do not receive new commands. Together with colleagues at Bosch, I have been analysing when this poses a threat to the correct system execution. In this case, we should trigger morphing and adaptation. I plan to keep working on this research line, to properly qualify when adaptation is needed and quantify how much and what are the limitations that we will face.