Diversity Heroes – Lori Russell Dag
As a community, we embrace our diversity; diversity makes us better, stronger. We cannot do enough to applaud all of our heroes in their diversity. They are people who are ACM members, volunteers or experts in their field. We’ve been talking with a number of heroes about their tech career journey, their perspective on intersectionality and reflect on initiatives for equality. This month’s guest is Lori Russell Dag.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What made you choose a computing career?
When I began university, I wanted to become an elementary school teacher. A couple of years into the program I was looking for different challenges and I heard about a health informatics program at the University of Victoria. Although I did not have a lot of experience with computing, the challenge of the program appealed to me, and I liked the blending of technology with services essential to society. I felt at home immediately. I worked for a few years in system implementations in a hospital in Canada, before becoming an instructor at Bilkent University in 2001. As an instructor at Bilkent University, I have taught introductory programing to students from most departments at the university. I have been lucky to find a career that allowed me to merge my early interest in education with my interests in technology, and computer science education. I would not have predicted this is where I would be, but I am happy I am here.
Have you faced any challenges in your career? If yes, how did you overcome those?
I have been lucky (or maybe unlucky) to have faced few challenges or few that have stood out over the years. In hindsight, I think that challenges often come when we push ourselves, and they should not necessarily be something to be avoided. How to overcome this? Push myself more!
One career highlight?
In 2021, I was very honored to receive the Bilkent University Distinguished Teaching Award. As part of the nomination process, many of my former students were contacted and asked to provide references. I have been teaching a long time, and I was amazed at the number of responses. Winning the award was not as important to me as hearing from so many former students. I wish everyone could have the same experience and get feedback from those they have impacted in some way. The messages taught me that every time, I walk into a classroom, someone is listening. I have an opportunity(and responsibility) to use that forum in a positive way. Because I did not come into the field in a traditional way, I can be a positive example to students that may otherwise feel different, unsupported, or out of place. There is a place for everyone and a necessity for everyone to be represented.
What was your involvement with ACM-W Europe?
I became involved in ACM and later ACM-W Europe through my colleague and former department chair, Reyyan Ayfer. I participated in the womENcourage conferences as the registration chair in 2016 in Uppsala, Sweden, 2017 in Linz, Austria and 2018. It has been a great experience through which I have met many interesting and inspiring people.
If you were to change something in the way we run tech communities and networks, what
would you change?
Sometimes in tech communities and networks, as a newcomer it may feel that everyone already knows what they want to do, and that they have the motivation to do it. It would be great for tech communities to provide mentorship and direction to those that are interested in technology but may not yet know where they want to focus or what possibilities are available. With so much education happening outside the traditional university environment, there are so many opportunities to customize a career in tech, but a roadmap and guidance from those with experience can be a great support.
Can you comment on diversity or intersectionality issues that you have experienced, seen
or been made aware of?
When I first started, I lacked awareness about intersectionality and diversity issues, although I probably experienced them without recognizing it. Attending womENcourage conferences and talking with those doing research about diversity in CS has also informed my perspective. I remember hearing about research into the differences in the way women in tech courses perceive their own competence versus that of their male colleagues. Being made aware of the specific ways in which the lack of diversity manifests itself in the classroom has helped my teaching and student engagement strategies. Working with students over the years has helped me to see that instead of forcing yourself to fit into the traditional (non-diverse) role of what a computer scientist looks like, the field should be shaped to look like what the community looks like. Also, teaching computer engineering students in not so diverse cohorts, I see there can be a lack of awareness amongst students about what diversity means in the field and why it is important. We often talk about designing systems, where I try to emphasize that the algorithms that we develop are often a subjective reflection of our own experience and understanding of the world. If we want to develop systems that are designed to meet the needs of a broader society, there
needs to be a diversity in the viewpoints represented. Technology should not shape the community; the community should shape technology.
Who is your Diversity/Equality Hero and why?
When I first started as an educator I worked with Reyyan Ayfer, former chair of ACM-W Europe among her many other roles. It was from her I learned how to be a teacher and mentor. Throughout the years, I was able to watch her engage students and colleagues and see how she very quietly and gently encourages those around her to be their best. Students who may not have traditionally been interested in the tech field go on to lead highly successful careers, in part I believe, due to her mentorship.
What would you recommend to young people thinking of a career in computing?
You don’t have to be the smartest, or the most ambitious to make a difference. There is room for everyone, and each career may look different. There is not one way to be a computer engineer or to be involved in tech. Find what you are interested in and shape your career to look like that. I see many of my students finding inspiring ways to integrate their interest in technology with other fields.