On April 17th, we held the 12th BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium (The Lovelace) at the University of Salford. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a conference for women undergraduate and taught MSc students studying computing and related subjects, and that I started the conference in 2008 handing it over to The Awesome Doctor Helen Miles in year 10; now she’s the conference chair and I’m the deputy.
What this means in practice is that Helen and I have a very busy couple of weeks in the run up to the event – students don’t have funds to travel to conferences, generally, and so we raise enough sponsorship (most years) to cover student travel to the event. This means a lot of email gets sent and read. We had 126 poster submissions this year, which needed to be reviewed, and we had 116 confirmed entrants by the day of the event. To get the more far-flung students from their homes to the event we put them up the night before, so this year we booked 104 rooms for the night of the 16th at a Manchester Travelodge.
On the 16th and 17th all these undergraduate women make their way to a university they’ve never been to before in a town many of them have never been to before. Some of them have never checked into a hotel on their own before, or navigated public transport in a new city on their own before.
This is an event I’ve been involved with for 12 years, so my blogs on the day can be found going back in time all the way to #2, in 2009 (I wasn’t blogging in 2008 so there isn’t one about number one, and I was working in France as a postdoc in 2010 so I missed that one).
At the first Lovelace there were about 30 students, and about 20 others (postgrads, helpers, sponsors). This year we had 116 students and about 100 others. We’ve been growing pretty much year-on-year and the scale of the event is now getting to the stage where we’re hitting issues to do with large numbers of people. The core of the day is the same (talks, extended poster session over lunch, more talks, panel session, social) but the details differ and we’re still working out a few things; every year we make some minor improvements, but every year there are some minor hitches too.
When you bring lots young women to a new town the night before a conference, it’s kinda useful to give them something to do on the evening which lets them meet up with other attendees. When we were a small conference I used to post on the attendees Facebook group and just nominate a pub-that-does-food. That approach really doesn’t scale. Two years ago, in Aberystwyth, Scott Logic sponsored a hackathon the night before. Last year, Sheffield Hallam students put on a QR-code based treasure hunt which was great fun. This year we got to within a few weeks of the conference and realised that we’d not organised anything, so put a call out on twitter for suggestions of a room we could book or use. Manchester Digital came good with a meeting room that seated 70 which we could use for free (with tea and coffee thrown in), and Code Computerlove offered to buy us all pizza.
Handily, Amanda Clare and I had run a STEAM-themed pub quiz for International Women’s Day so we were able to re-use that with some minor tweaks. This has 5 rounds, starting like a normal pub quiz (10 questions) and then getting progressively stranger. The Engineering round involves building a model of The Shard from materials provided. And the less said about the Maths round the better.
The day itself was huge fun. Some of this I only know from the feedback forms (I didn’t get to see any of the talks – I rarely do, as there’s quite a lot of behind the scenes organising to be done). We had stands from about 12 employers and sponsors, including Google, Scott Logic, Bloomberg, Amazon, JP Morgan, Collins Aerospace, Northrop Grumman and Whitbread. The Whitbread stand featured a Lovelace Alumna – it’s always great to see some students return year-after-year, and it’s even greater when they choose to persuade their employers to get involved after graduation. The best MSc prize was sponsored by AND Digital who came on board quite late so they didn’t bring a stand, but they did come along and chat to the students and seemed to enjoy themselves.
Posters were, as ever, fascinating. It’s a real highlight for me to stroll around and read the posters, looking for any themes, and seeing the students engage with helpers, sponsors and each other about aspects of computing that excite them. We allow the students to do a poster on any computing related topic that they like – there’s an assumption the final year students and the MScs will do something on their dissertation or project, but they don’t have to. This means that you find out what topics are hot and what topics are interesting across the whole of UK computing. Each university has their specialism (for example, there’s a lot of natural language work at Sheffield, and it’s always interesting to see the posters from Bath, where there’s an emphasis on formal methods) and sometimes this leads the student choice. In other cases, students have side projects or personal research interests.
You can see all of the abstracts for the posters in the Abstract book. This year, for the first time, we released the abstracts as an e-book rather than a paper book. Whilst it was lovely having a printed abstract book in previous years, which went in the students’ goodie bags, we didn’t have the time or the organisation to print this year. As we’ve grown and the number of abstracts and students has grown, we’ve gone from being able to run off the abstract book on a printer to needing to have it bound professionally, which is a cost in terms of both cash and time. We didn’t have goodie bags, either. Some students missed them, but I think on balance it was a good decision – the employers were able to put their goodies on their stalls which caused more interaction, and we saved 3 hours of bag stuffing on the 16th.
We finished the formal part of the day, as usual, with a panel session and prizegiving. The panel has a group of women with different careers in tech (this year – a professor, a research software engineer in a university, a software engineer at a research centre, a graduate trainee from Whitbread and a senior software engineer from Bloomberg). During the panel students are able to ask any question they like. It’s always one of my favourite parts of the day – there are a few minutes at the start where people aren’t sure what to do or aren’t confident enough to ask out loud, and then the audience relaxes and the questions start flowing.
First year including Foundation year, sponsored by Google
- First prize: “Challenges Associated with Humanitarian Applications of Neural Machine Translation for Low-Resource Languages” by Kate Bobyn of the University of Sheffield
- Second prize: “Quantum cryptography: will our data remain secure?” by Molly Ives of the University of Bath
Second year contest (also open to students on their industrial year or on the 3rd year of a 4 year degree), sponsored by Amazon
- First prize: “What would Avengers be like with Mr Bean as Thor? – How can ‘deepfakes’ disrupt the film industry” by Luou Wen of the University of Nottingham
- Joint second place were “Source identification of social media images using CNN” by Anastasia Taylor of the University of Buckingham and “High Altitude Computing” by Bridget Meade of the University of Stirling
Final year contest, sponsored by JP Morgan:
- First place went to “DNA heritage augmented reality visualisation to challenge the concept of race and identity” by Rachele Cavina of Edinburgh Napier University
- Second place went to “Ada: natural language search to support applicants for the University of Bath” by Emma James of the University of Bath
MSc Prize, sponsored by AND Digital:
- First place went to “Nature Nurtures, Computing, and electronics, a tool to teach empathy and care for nature.” by Mariam Aomar Perez of Sheffield Hallam University
- Second place went to “The dark patterns – how good design can become bad” by Maria Radu of the University of Bath
People’s’ choice prize (voted by attendees) sponsored by STFC
- First place went to an augmented reality poster called “Blank Is The New Exciting” by Kristen Rebello of Middlesex University London
- Second place went to “Code as Old as Time” by Hannah Bellamy of Durham University
We finished up with a social in the Students Union bar, which gave everyone a chance to relax and catch up with old friends and new. One of the lovely things about this is that us organisers can sit in the corner, relaxing with a nice beer or a fruity cider, and a series of students roll up to say “Thanks!” as they head off.