I often get asked to talk about ‘my path’ and how ‘I got to where I am today’. This sort of implies I have ‘arrived’ at my ‘destination’ and having done a lot of different things along the way I have settled into a steady career path. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Having studied classical music, followed by engineering, I decided to join a rock band, move countries and embark on further study, this time jazz music and sonic arts.
This lead to an exciting freelance career working with companies from different cultural backgrounds and travelling around the world as a sound artist, composer and sound designer and subsequently led to my PhD research in human-computer interaction (think computer science field of research) at Queen Mary University of London, where I am at the moment grappling with my thesis chapters.
My path has certainly not been as straight forward as my parents would have hoped, but it was kind of predictable (at least from my point of view) until I passed my Stage 1 exam (for those who haven’t done a PhD in science, that would be a second out of 4 ‘hurdles’ in ones journey for acquiring a full PhD).
So what exactly happened? I recall the day I was trying to organise my desk pondering about all the time I had spent reading research papers and designing my pilot studies and all the time I had not spend tinkering with Arduino NG gathering dust somewhere in my draws. The excuse of not doing physical computing stuff because of the ‘no soldering’ policy we had in our office had just worn so thin after spending days on end writing my Stage 1 review.
I needed to do something drastic to break this cycle, something I can do on campus and something I can do with other people. I had one of those ‘aha moments’ you hear so much about from other people (but never actually happen to you personally) and though to myself why don’t I start a girls hacking club? No more excuses. Just do it. Just make it happen. And I did.
Of course there was no girls to recruit into this club in my own office (or nearby offices for that matter) but I did eventually stumble upon a whole bunch of ladies from other programmes within our department, some of whom, as it turned out, had been thinking about a similar idea along the lines of a ‘supportive space for women to do experimentation and knowledge sharing’.
We joined forces and G.Hack was born with me at the helm as Chair trying to work out what different activities we could house under the G.Hack umbrella, how we can raise the funding to keep the project going and how our activities would benefit our members (internally) and inspire more women to follow suit (externally).
Not long after that, I got involved with Flossie Collective (bringing the first Flossie conference to QML) and WISE@QMUL society (which was inactive due to key members leaving QML after finishing their PhD’s). I than joined BCSWomen committee and within months started a Mentoring Working (sub) Group, looking at synthesising different mentoring practices our members had expertise in into a framework that could be rolled out across the rest of BCS membership.
And so, I did it. I made it happen. I even got an award for it but I didn’t have to do it alone and that really is the point. Many times before I thought about instigating change, disrupting the norm and making things work better. I wish I had someone tell me there and than that all I had to do is raise my hand in the air, speak my mind and convince a few other people to join me for a ride.
It’s that simple.
You can do it too.
No more excuses.
Just make it happen.
Nela Brown is a sound artist, musician, designer and technologist. She is currently doing her PhD in human-computer interaction at Queen Mary University of London, where she is also a leader of G.Hack (art & technology lab for female researchers) and advisor of WISE@QMUL society.
She is a member of Flossie Collective (organising conferences and events for women working with open source software and hardware) and BCSWomen committee, where she currently leads a Mentoring Working Group (MWG) collaborating with BCS CPD team with the aim to establish good mentoring practices and mentoring training framework for BCSWomen and the rest of BCS membership.
In recognition of her work with G.Hack, WISE@QMUL and Flossie, inspiring girls and young women to enter the field of computer science, in November 2013, she was presented with a prestigious Highly Commended WISE Leader AWARD by the patron of WISE, HRH The Princes Royal.