The origins of womENcourage celebration by Eva Navarro López

This year we are going to have the 10th womENcourage celebration, which will be hosted in Trondheim, Norway! We are so excited to share the journey we had so far and looking forward to bigger, greater and more exciting celebrations to come. We are acknowledging this milestone of 10 years with a series of blogs from past chairs who organized this event successfully so far. This month we start with Eva Navarro Lopez who is one of the founders of womENcourage. She is also an inspiring figure, so the article is focused on her story, the origins of the celebration name and much more.

Selfie of Eva with an artistic background

1. Brief introduction about yourself: who are you, what do you currently do and how are you connected to the computing field?

I am a passionate scientist and educator; born in Alicante, Spain, and Mexican at heart. I have always broken the boundaries of disciplines. I am an unconventional computer scientist, because I am also a control engineer, a mathematician, and expert in cyber-physical systems, complex systems and electrical engineering. Few computer scientists can claim to have controlled robots, eliminated mechanical vibrations in oil fields, introduced formal methods of computer science into dynamical systems, and modelled dynamical brain processes. I am currently proposing new nature-inspired models of computation, learning and evolution for complex systems. I shadowed the footsteps of Alan Turing in Manchester and Santiago Ramón y Cajal in Madrid. I am one of the world’s experts in Turing’s morphogenesis and have collaborated with Alan Turing’s last surviving student. I am currently a Reader in Data Science at the University of Wolverhampton (UK), and Director and Founder of AiDAs, the Artificial intelligence and DAta science Research Lab. A Reader in the UK is equivalent to a full professor without a chair in other countries. I am also a Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Spatial Policy Lab of the Manchester Urban Institute and the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester; part of the core team of AI Mexico and a proud member of Technolatinas; a co-founder of ACM-Women Europe and womENcourage conference series. Amongst other advisory roles in international associations and technical committees, I am an expert of the UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Swedish AI Fund Program at AI Center in Sweden.

In my work on modelling, I observe changes and patterns and translate them into mathematical equations and computational abstractions. In control systems and engineering, I design algorithms from observed behaviours to follow desired values or patterns. The things I study can vary from robots, electronic circuits, social interactions, medical images, the interaction of a school of fish or how memories are formed in the brain or how the heart works. I transmit to students and colleagues my passion for good science, love for knowledge and the belief that we can change the world. I started programming at the age of 11, and I have fulfilled two of my dreams: 1) controlling robots, and 2) modelling the human brain. Every computer scientist is fascinated by the working of the human brain.

I am a lover of philosophy, arts, music and poetry. I define myself as a scientist artist: scientists are artists, because we challenge the existing order; we do not follow pathways, we build and open new pathways. Scientists and artists are alike in that both attempt to understand the world better. At best, both scientists and artists make the world a better place.

More information can be found here.

2. Have you faced any challenges in your career? If yes, how did you overcome these?

In each phase of my career I have faced different challenges. The challenge was to have a career at all, as a first-generation university student coming from a disadvantaged background, and a Latina in a male-dominated and dehumanised area.

As a tireless advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion in academia and industry, I am the implacable enemy of inequity, exclusion, hostility and outright abuse that pervades our academic institutions.

As a scientist, a challenge worth mentioning is making understand that doing science is daring to think, contemplating and creating new ideas. There is a lot of invisible work in science, because thought is required to make something work, and thought is not a visible product. To think at all takes a certain amount of daring. People can understand if you say you teach, but the business of thinking seems abstract and suspicious.

Indeed, the list of challenges is endless. My answer is to build networks of support, keep listening and talking, always trust instinct, and always, always keep smiling.

3. One career highlight.

I am proud of our recent paper about modelling key processes in the human brain related to Parkinson’s disease. It has been a work of many years with my dear friend and long-standing colleague Neslihan Sengör from Istanbul Technical University.

4. How did you get involved with ACM-W Europe?

My dear friend Mashhuda Glencross invited me to join the team to establish ACM-W Europe in 2012. We were the Magnificent Seven: Beryl Nelson (I miss her very much, she gave me so much, and I cherish every conversation with her), Reyyan Ayfer, Bev Bachmayer, Vicki Hanson, Cornelia Denk, Veronica Sundstedt, and me. I was happy to share time and dreams with so many amazing people.

I remember the excitement in a taxi cab in Vienna, December 2012, when we hit upon the name womENcourage, because ‘courage’ was our main value (you’ll also notice how I planted my initials EN as a signature!). And thence to Paris, Krakow… and Manchester! It was very touching to listen to Reyyan Ayfer at “ACM-W Europe: 10 Years and Counting”, and remember how it all started. We did not realise that we were making history. womENcourage will have its 10th edition in Trondheim (Norway) this year. I love the idea that the ripples from 2012 are still spreading.

5. How did you come up with the idea of womENcourage? or who was the driver who got you involved with this? A few details about the initiation of this celebration.

I proposed it to Reyyan Ayfer and volunteered to build the network with the University of Manchester as the first host. The name was the outcome of a brain-storming late in the evening in a taxi in Vienna at the end of the first meeting of ACM-W Europe, in December 2012. Reyyan and I started to play with names. We wished to emphasise ‘women’ and ‘courage’ and the ‘EN’ was in capitals to highlight the courage needed to keep alive everyday, but also to spell ‘encourage’, with the notion of spreading that courage.

After this, I worked shoulder to shoulder with Bev Bachmayer to found womENcourage in Europe. The journey started in Manchester, 1st March 2014, with my opening speech, expressing greetings in 15 different languages. Here is the text and video (incomplete). I still have the red chair! I was so excited, full of energy with all those eyes looking at me, full of hope and strength. I feel it now as I talk about it.

I dared to dream that change was possible. That dream is still the driving force of my day-to-day work.

6. What was your takeaway from the entire process and from the event itself? What would be your advice to other people that wish to organize either womENcourage in the future or any other celebration of women in computing?

My takeaway is that change is difficult and the trap of tokenism is an ever present danger. In the nine years since the first womENcourage in Manchester, there has been a proliferation of events dedicated to “women in”, but the numbers of “women in computing” have not changed much. My fear is that ‘women in’ might be another self-imposed limitation, effectively creating women’s spaces that necessarily entails exclusion from the spaces where decisions are taken. We are not women in computing, we are computer scientists pure and simple. We shall arrive at our destination when there is no need for ‘women in’ events. How far away are we?

Looking back, I also feel deeply grateful and touched to have worked with such a group of dreamers, dearest friends that taught me that yes, we can, and that together we are stronger!

7. If you were to change something in the way we run tech communities and networks, what would you change?

I would remove from the titles of the events two words: “women in”. I think it is time to evolve to another phase of our work in diversity, equity and inclusion. We might be building our own cage.

8. Who is your Diversity/Equality Hero and why?

I have many. There are many unheralded, generous people working to bring positive change. My Diversity Heroes are all the Technolatinas, a genuine support community, without hierarchies, without an agenda. It was created during the pandemic to bring together technologists and scientists in Latin America and the Latin American diaspora for mutual support and the championing of equity, diversity and inclusion. We are a group of more than 600 friends of all ages, ready to encourage, give help and listen. We accompany each other in our work and in our lives.

I admire all the Technolatinas, but to mention a few: Eloísa García Canseco, Saiph Savage, Alix Gallardo and Michelle Díaz. Look for their works. You will feel inspired.

I also admire Alice Rodríguez in Mexico for her long-standing fight for more inclusive working environments. Finally, the great Claudia Calvin, from Mexico, creator of “Mujeres Construyendo” (Women Building), amongst many other international initiatives.

9. What would you recommend to young people thinking of a career in computing?

Computing can give you wings to fly, to do many incredible things. There are no limits, everything is possible. From robotics to medicine, from ecology to humanities. Computing is not just an area within a box, it integrates many areas of research and domains of application. The future of computing lies in diversity: of people, and ideas – call it multidisciplinarity, if you like. It is in your hands.

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