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Caitlin Duncan

Caitlin Duncan is a PhD student and researcher in the Computer Science Education Research Group at the University of Canterbury.

caitlinWhat do you do on an average day?
Generally I’ll have at least one meeting, either with my supervisor, the Code Club team, or a University club committee meeting. I actually always enjoy these meetings, most of them are spent discussing interesting ideas and concepts, or planning events. I’ll spend some time reading through papers, recent blog posts, and articles related to Computer Science and Programming education, writing up new findings or ideas from these and testing out activities with students. I work with a large number of teachers so I also spend time making sure I have sent out resources for them and checking in to see how their teaching is going. Most days also involve yoga classes at the uni gym and coffee with other students and staff in the department.

What did you study at school? And after high school? 
At school I took English, Statistics, Calculus, Art/Painting, Physics and Chemistry. I always loved the sciences and maths, but also really enjoyed visual art and english.

I really struggled with deciding what to study at university. I wanted to do something that involved problem solving and maths, but I also wanted to be creative. I was recommended Engineering and started this at UC in 2010. I didn’t enjoy the engineering papers at all, but I loved the Computer Science and programming course I took and switched to a Computer Science degree the next year. Before I took the programming course in my first year I had no idea what Computer Science was and had never done any coding at all. I loved my new degree despite this, graduated in 2012, completed my Honours year in 2013, and began my PhD the next year.

Was your study directly related to what you do now? 
While my school subjects weren't directly related to Computer Science they have greatly benefited me. From Maths and the Science subjects I developed logic and analytical skills, and from English I learnt good written and aural communication skills which are extremely important in my work. It's a common misconception that studying and working in Computer Science means you don't need good communication skills and this is far from the truth. Report writing and presentation skills are hugely beneficial. Through all my school subjects I was also lucky enough to have fantastic teachers who encouraged students to take initiative and be independent learners, ideal skills for tertiary study. 

My University studies have been directly related to what I'm doing now, as I have continued studying Computer Science since completing my BSc. I chose to do a PhD because I enjoyed my final year project on CS education and wanted to continue working in the area.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now? 

  1. If you don’t know how to do something right now, that doesn’t mean you're not ‘smart enough’ to learn it. Many young people, particularly women, have a fixed mindset when it comes to learning and see their intelligence as something that can’t change. You’re either smart enough to understand something or you're not. This is just not true, and there is plenty of research that shows this isn’t true. Learning is something you get better at the more you do it, so remember that just because you can’t do something now doesn’t mean you can’t learn it in the future. 

  2. You can have a wide range of interests, or be the complete opposite person to the stereotype of a Computer/Science geek, and still be fantastic at STEM. You don’t have to have a specific kind of personality to work in STEM, this field needs people of all different kinds and from all different backgrounds.

  3. Whenever you find yourself doubting or questioning your ability at what you do, I highly recommend the ‘Fake it till you make it’ attitude and looking up the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’. It is sadly extremely common for young women to have a distorted view of their own abilities. One of the only differences I notice between the young men and women I teach at University is confidence; the men tend to have more confidence in their current abilities and confidence in their ability to learn. Regardless of what causes this difference, it causes young women stress and holds them back from succeeding and pushing themselves further. So, as cliche as it sounds, you have to believe in yourself and your capabilities, and if that seems to hard right now then fake the confidence for now, and at some point you’ll suddenly realise you're not faking it anymore.

What are some of your career/study highlights so far?
Last year I was selected to attend a Young Women Scientists Camp in Seoul, South Korea, which was part of a larger ‘Asia Pacific Women in Science and Technology’ conference. Myself and the other attendees, women from at least 12 different countries, were hosted at Ewha Women's University for four days. We were given a tour of the Korean Institute for Science and Technology, attended the opening of the conference where we heard from Women in Engineering and Science groups from all over the Asia Pacific region about their work and the current state of gender equality in their countries, and took part in a two-day camp for all students attending the conference. It was an incredible experience. I met and became friends with some amazing and inspiring women from all over the world, had the opportunity to hear about their research and present mine, and learnt a lot about the state of gender equality in science in many different countries.

A highlight of my time at uni has definitely been the UC Computer Chicks Club, which has become as large a part of my life as my actual study. In 2013, when I became interested in the Women in Tech movement, I restarted this club as it had become clear that many of the women in the department felt isolated and were struggling with feelings of Imposter Syndrome. The aim of the club is to connect and support women studying technical degrees at UC, and to raise awareness of issues surrounding the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Over the past two and a half years the club has grown massively in size and has made a very clear impact on the department, for staff and students. We hold social events, information evenings, and work with the staff and the Computer Science Society to make the CSSE department a welcoming place for all students, and we are very proud of the positive impact we have made.

Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
STEM shapes our world and influences the development of society as a whole. Engaging in STEM, at least at the level of being aware of issues and having a basic understanding of the area, is important for all New Zealanders because without an understanding of it they aren’t able to participate or have a say in the direction of scientific development. Through STEM we as a nation have the ability to tackle huge problems, for example child poverty and global warming. However technology is not always developed with all peoples, or the environment's, best interests at heart. All New Zealanders deserve to have a say in the way technology shapes our future, and this requires an understanding of STEM and the issues surrounding it.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
It is important because currently women are missing out on fantastic opportunities. STEM is full of high impact, well paid, and intellectually rewarding jobs, and currently many women are missing out on these as the stereotypes and public perception of this field is off-putting.

About 50% of the people who use technology are women, so it makes sense that 50% of the people who develop technology should also be women. Developers should be representative of their users, and there is a large amount of research which shows that diverse teams (diverse in terms of not only gender, but also ethnicity and sexual orientation) create better products, are more creative and are more productive. Having more women working in STEM is of benefit to companies and universities, but more importantly it is of benefit to people. It benefits people with better solutions to their problems, and it benefits society as a whole because decisions and developments will be made with input from a wide range of people, rather than one specific demographic.

Caitlin Duncan is a PhD student and researcher in the Computer Science Education Research Group at the University of Canterbury

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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