In this post, we meet Dr Elaheh HomayounVala, a lecturer in Computer Science at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research looks at how people interact with technology and how to adapt technology to needs and preferences of people.
Growing up in Iran, Elaheh’s passion for tech began in high school, when she would travel by bus to one of the first computing companies in the city to study IT. She later became one of the first women in the country to graduate with a master’s in Philosophy of Science.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been finding the right career path for me. When I was at school most of our teachers advised us to study medicine or electrical engineering, but I knew that I wanted a career that would allow me the flexibility to be a wife and a mother as well, and computing offered that.
“While I enjoyed my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, I had other interests I wanted to explore – like psychology and the humanities – which was why I chose Philosophy of Science as my master’s subject. It was a really new programme and I was one of only two women in a class of 10 students”
When she moved to London, she undertook her PhD at King’s College. Elaheh combined her tech skills with her interests in people and psychology to begin researching user modelling and personalisation – looking at how people interact with computers and how technology can be adapted to suit both individuals and groups.
“I like the unpredictability of humans as users of computers, and I’m very interested in how we can personalise technology to suit such diverse users. It was a relatively new field when I began, so I’m proud that I recognised early on that this was going to be an increasingly popular area – 15 years on many big companies are really investing in personalisation.”
As part of the Goldsmiths Computing team, Elaheh firmly believes that students should have the opportunity to use their computing skills in the areas that interests them.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about Computer Science is that it’s only suitable for people who love maths and are very techy and therefore that it can’t have anything to do with fields like art or psychology. That is completely untrue. Areas like Human Computer Interaction rely on a multidisciplinary team, with computer scientists working alongside graphic designers and psychologists.
“One of the best things about the Computing department at Goldsmiths is that people working here come from all kinds of different backgrounds. We have students who are interested in management and entrepreneurship or artificial intelligence and medicine and they combine those passions with technical skills. What we’re showing our students is that just because you’re interested in more than one field of study, you don’t need to choose between them. You can use computing skills to support you in any area you care about.”
As technology increasingly intersects with every element of our lives, Elaheh believes it is becoming even more important to redress the balance between men and women in the tech sector.
“Technology is changing the world we live in and more than that, it is changing the world our children will live in. We need both men and women to help shape that world. We add our own perspectives – as sisters, mothers, wives. That’s not to say we have a better perspective, but we all benefit from considering lots of different views, particularly regarding ethical issues surrounding areas of computing like artificial intelligence, which will have such a big impact on future generations.”
As her own daughter prepares to start her undergraduate degree in Computer Science at King’s College London (where she herself began her PhD 18 years ago), Elaheh has some pertinent advice for young women everywhere who are wondering if tech is for them.
“Start by thinking about yourself. Know what your interests are and what you enjoy doing. Have a look at the range of jobs available now but also at where future trends are likely to go – you will enter the job market in a few years’ time and computing is always changing so can you imagine yourself working in any of these future trends?
“But most importantly, remember it’s okay not to be sure. You can start your journey and adapt it along the way. The flexibility offered in Computer Science will allow you to make your own unique career path.”
This article was adapted from an interview published in the University of London’s online magazine, London Connection.