Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day!

Okay, so it's Ada Lovelace Day, the international internet-based day for honouring women in the sciences, and so as a part of that, I've decided to post an interview with a programmer friend of mine who does an awful lot of sciencey things that I don't understand. For instance using "field programmable gate arrays" that let you "hardcode on the fly." The quotation marks are there to indicate the bits I didn't understand in that sentence.

So without further ado: Her name is Olivia -------, she got her Masters of Engineering degree in mechanical engineering at McGill University in Canada, where her thesis was titled "A Stability and Control System for a Hexapod Underwater Robot." You can view a video segment on the robot she worked on here. Olivia now works for a company in Texas called Awesomesauce Inc*.

I got my Masters in Medieval Studies and am now an unemployed blogger -- let that be a lesson to you, kids. ^__^

Vellum: Where to start? I guess "What do you do?" is basically my main question, but, because I know next to nothing about science, it's easiest to go about it in a roundabout fashion. I'm a humanities major, so let's start with basics: What does Awesomesauce Inc. do?
Olivia: The main thing we sell is Awesomesauce. It's a visual programming language.

V: What's a visual programming language?
O: Okay, so you know how most people know C and Java. That's text-based programming -- you code line by line. Visual programming uses icons to represent certain functions and you link between functions with wires.

V: What are the benefits of doing that?
O: It's more intuitive for some people; some people work better visually.

V: So your title at Awesomesauce Inc. is Applications Engineer -- what do you actually do?
O: Well, basically we come up with new applications for Awesomesauce Inc.'s products and help people use them. Right now we're trying to create a sales demo of a certain application platform -- the idea is to prove what you can do, then go to schools and show them. Like at Queen's University, where I did my undergraduate work, I took a mechanics course doing simple robots: every week was a different task. For example one week we'd get robots to follow one another. All that work was text-based. Now we're trying to show students you can do similar things in visual-based programming languages.

V: What were the ratios of men to women in your programs at university?
O: At Queen's it was probably 25% girls. [V: Less in some cases. Click here for a class shot of one of Olivia's undergrad classes!]

V: Was that intimidating?
O: It wasn't intimidating at Queen's. At McGill there were people who thought I didn't belong. But for the most part people were nice about it, and yeah some people were condescending, but for the most part people treated you like an equal. I mean, okay you know the discovery channel video -- there were times when I was the only girl around at the beach, and people assumed I was someone's girlfriend. They'd ask you to hold the cable or whatever, assumed I wasn't working on it -- I had one guy come up to the group of us and ask about the robot, and ask about the control systems, and one of the other guys on the project had to tell him, you know, ask her: she's the one working on them.

V: You mentioned in an earlier conversation a robotics competition you went to -- can you tell me about that?
O: It was a high school level competition called FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) -- the main idea was that the robot's supposed to go around and pick up "moon rocks" and throw them at other robots. The arena was set up on this mat so that it had 1/6 the friction of a normal environment. One of the problems we were having was with the static electricity. They weren't expecting that the mats would cause so much static -- they had to wet them down I think.

V: So these are the best and brightest of the next generation?
O: I swear a lot of them are smarter than me. It was cool. There was one all girls team that was totally kicking ass. This senior was telling me how she has full scholarship to a bunch of universities.

V: So what's next?
O: The regionals are in Dallas, and whoever goes to the next one after that is going to Atlanta, but I won't get to go to that. There's a bunch of people helping these kids out at work. We made donations of hardware and copies of Awesomesauce and try to help out where we can.

V: It sounds like you're doing a lot of good work. Thanks for your time. One last question: is there anything you'd say to young women who want to go into the sciences?
OC: (laughs) Go for it?


Happy Ada Lovelace Day, all.



* Awesomesauce Inc. / Awesomesauce are not registered trademarks of Vaulting and Vellum, but rather pseudonyms so as not to get certain persons in trouble for representing a certain company (for good or ill) without prior approval.

P.S. -- Here is the link for the aquatic robot's home page. :)

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