Jackie_Rice

Dr.Jacqueline Rice

There are far more men than women in computer science. I hope that will change, as we need female voices and opinions!

Professor, Computer Science
Associate Dean of Arts & Science
University of Lethbridge

I hold a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Victoria and I am currently a Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Lethbridge, as well as Associate Dean of Timetabling, Recruitment and Retention. Before pursuing a PhD I worked as a programmer analyst in Victoria, BC.

My research started out in hardware design, specifically in developing ways to translate mathematical descriptions of functions into circuits, a process known as logic synthesis. At the moment I am starting new work that investigates how sociological factors such as gender, nationality, and experience affect how people write computer programs. In addition to my research I also teach a variety of Computer Science courses at the University of Lethbridge and am heavily involved in outreach activities.

I am a co-founder of the LUMACS (Life, U, Mathematics and Computer Science) program at the University of Lethbridge and I enjoy showing kids how to program Lego robots, write Scratch programs, and learn languages such as Python and Logo. I have two dogs and a cat, love science fiction, and enjoy textile crafts (knitting, crocheting, sewing, knotting) and gardening in my few moments of spare time.

As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?

I love working with people and solving problems. As Associate Dean I work with people, making their jobs better, or trying to help them with issues that they have encountered. As Professor of Computer Science I ask myself "how can we do this better?", and I design my research to try and answer that question.

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

I am researching how people use language. This is actually a field of linguistics, and so I collaborate with many linguists. However linguists look at how people use natural language (e.g. English, Japanese, Arabic, etc.) while I am interested in how people use programming languages. For instance, men and women use natural language in different ways, and computer programs can identify whether a man or a woman wrote a particular article, blog post, or book.

So what does that mean for your computer? If the instructions (software) that your computer runs on are written in different ways by men vs women, what does that mean? Could we put together groups of software designers to keep this in mind, and ensure there is a balance? Could we use this to teach programming differently? And also, are there other groups that use programming languages in different ways? For instance, if you grow up in Canada vs in Bangladesh, will your computer programs look different? Computers are everywhere, so I think it is important that we know about how people are programming them.

What types of professions can students graduating in your field enter?

Computer scientists can work anywhere, because computers are everywhere! Hospitals, banks, government offices, non-profit organizations -- they all need people who understand computers to help them run their operations on a day-to-day basis. I think that the most rewarding area might be software development, where you are building software to solve a particular problem or meet a particular need. Microsoft and Google are examples of very large software development companies, but there are also smaller companies everywhere that need highly skilled people who will bring different perspectives.

Is your workplace male-dominated? If so, how do you negotiate being a woman in a male-dominated workplace and/or field?

There are far more men than women in computer science. Only about 5 to 10% of our computer science students are women. I hope that will change, as we need female voices and opinions! I have had many mentors, both male and female, some from within computer science, and some from other fields. Computer scientists can work in many cross-disciplinary areas, so I get to make friends and colleagues in areas such as linguistics, or psychology, which aren't as male dominated.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

I try to remind myself that everyone has bias, and we aren't aware of it. I also try to remind other people of that, and encourage new ideas, and new perspectives. It's really easy to surround yourself with people who look and think like you do -- it's comfortable! But it is important to remember that different voices and different opinions help us to grow and be successful, and I try to encourage that.

What kinds of systemic support could institutions provide to help encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and engineering?

Our culture needs to change, which is a very difficult thing. It is difficult to get the training and courses that are needed, sometimes -- for instance physics courses aren't offered at every high school, and girls are discouraged (both overtly and unconsciously) from pursuing "math-heavy" courses. This applies to Indigenous people in some cases too. Institutions could sponsor and offer bridging programs for students to enter into engineering and physics, and ensure that they are prepared. We can also look to places like Harvey Mudd College in California, where they have changed the way they teach these programs. Finally, we can make computer science mandatory in high school, like English and math, so that everyone can be computer literate and understand the amazing power that apps can hold.

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?

Don't let anyone stop you! People will try to put barriers in your way, and when you encounter them ask for help getting over them, around them, or through them. Mentors and supporters can be found everywhere, so if you aren't getting the answers you want, ask someone else. Never be afraid to ask for help, and don't take no for an answer.

As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

My role models have been the computer science professors at the University of Victoria, where I did my schooling. These people supported me, guided me, and set amazing examples, which I am still trying to live up to. They taught me that little things can make a huge difference, and that we are all human beings together.