Extraordinary women who inspire Edinburgh Informatics

[08/03/2024] The School of Informatics is committed to improving gender equity. From Professor Helen Hastie, our Head of School, through to inspirational academics and members of staff in various roles, to research and taught students, women among us are all great ambassadors to the School. To encourage our staff and students to foster and advance women’s achievements, we asked them to tell us about women who inspire them, and why.


International Women's Day is a global holiday celebrated annually on 8th March that honours the achievements of women and promotes women’s rights. It’s a national holiday in numerous countries. The first International Women's Day in 1911 was marked by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Women across Europe demanded the right to vote and to hold public office and protested against employment sex discrimination. The United Nations began celebrating International Women's Day in 1975, which had been proclaimed the International Women's Year. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim 8th March as an official UN holiday for women's rights and world peace. This year UN celebrate the day under the theme 'Invest in women: Accelerate progress”.

Early role models

“My one constant role model is my mother, Beatrice Khoushabeh”, says Aida Tarighat, a student in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Natural Language Processing.

“She is the reason I have learned, among other things, to be strong; be independent; be creative; be open to experiences; be tolerant of diversity; be patient in the face of hurdles/wrongdoings/bigotry; challenge myself; find solace in and appreciate nature; find joy in little things; carpe diem; strive for change not just for myself but also for my surroundings; share; never stop learning; still make the right decisions even if I would not immediately or directly benefit from them myself; love unconditionally but never forget to love myself first; keep a healthy mind and body; and constantly foster kindness and empathy in me no matter how dark my life becomes at times.”

“On a general scale, I get inspired by and truly admire all the women who stand tall in the face of oppression taking the risk of arrest, assault, persecution, and death. They fight for almost every piece of their freedom and make sure the younger generation does not have to fight for theirs. They do not dare lose hope even in their most painful moments because they know if they break down, humanity breaks down with them”.

Narmin Mammadova, Strategic Project Manager at the School of Informatics says: “Growing up, rhythmic gymnastics wasn't just something I dreamed about—it was my whole world. I spent every possible moment at the gym, perfecting routines and pushing my limits, all to mirror the incredible Anna Bessonova's elegance and strength. It was more than a sport to me; it was a way of life, demanding endless dedication and shaping who I became.”

“As time passed, my focus shifted from the gym to the world of politics and making a real difference in society. I started looking up to powerful women like Angela Merkel, admiring their strength and ability to lead with conviction. It was this admiration that pushed me to get involved on a deeper level, inspiring me to lead a youth organisation back in Azerbaijan. It was a chance to put my passion into action, guiding young minds in a developing country and hopefully inspiring them the way Merkel inspired me.”

Politicians, athletes, thinkers, inventors

Dr Chris Heunen, the School of Informatics Director of People and Culture also names Merkel. “Angela Merkel inspires me because her career shows how a scientific background can be used for great good: pragmatism, collaboration, grounding in facts, realising what you don't know, clear communication, vision, patience, ethics, honesty, and selflessness. She just has it all, and I hope I can learn from her example.”

Chris, who comes from the southern part of the Netherlands also mentions a local hero, footballer Lieke Martens. “[Martens] inspires me because she is a great team player, always focused on the goal, and has impressively smooth skills won through hard work, on top of which she consciously uses her successful football career to make sure girls around the world can have the opportunities in their youth that she did not."

headshots of Brene Brown, Angela Merkel and Hedy Lamarr

Dr Nadin Kökciyan, Deputy Director of People and Culture picks professor, author and podcaster Brené Brown. “[She] inspires me because she is a great researcher who taught me a lot about shame, courage, vulnerability, empathy, emotions and leadership. In her books, she shares her work through empirical studies, and she always has a story to tell! Thanks to her, I can now understand that vulnerability is not a weakness. I am trying to be brave with my life, and I often choose courage over comfort.”

When asked for his inspirations, Informatics Business Manager Gregor McElvogue (BA (Hons) Drama and Film, MBA, awarded US Patent No. US-7089316-B2, August 8th, 2006) does not hesitate when he names Hedy Kiesler Markey (awarded U.S. Patent No. 2292387, August 11th, 1942).

Hedy Kiesler Markey

Kiesler Markey was an Austrian-born inventor who fled to London in 1937. As a person of Jewish heritage from both her parents, she fled the fascist government and a controlling husband, a German munitions dealer with connections to both the National Socialists and the Italian Fascists. While in London, she met Louis B Mayer and moved to California in 1938.

Although self-taught, with no formal training, Markey’s father had instilled in her a curiosity about science and technology, and she had accompanied her husband to military technology conferences, meeting scientists and businessmen. A prolific inventor, when U-boats started sinking passenger liners, Markey determined to invent a means of stopping them. With avant-garde composer George Antheil, she invented a system inspired by player piano rolls, whereby transmitter and receiver would randomly change radio frequencies synchronously, thus evading detection and jamming. Originally intended as an allied torpedo guidance system, their invention influenced today’s mobile phone and Wi-Fi network architectures. In 1997, they received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award for their frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology, and in 2014, Markey was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Gregor says: “Hedy Kiesler Markey is inspiring not just because her invention underpins much of modern communications and re-purposed a mechanical technology of her time but also because she is better known as Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr. She reminds us that we can all contribute to science and the advancement of knowledge, even if we don’t have formal degrees in a STEM subject.”

Tanisha Agarwal, Computer Science and AI student, agrees with Gregor: “Hedy Lamarr was essentially the mastermind behind Bluetooth – something we use as a part of everyday life and which is so important for us as well. She was an Austrian-American actress who came up with the idea of “frequency hopping” in the 1940s as a secret wartime communication system but the navy rejected the invention and discarded it as a plaything. It took decades for her to even get recognition for something this amazing that she came up with. I truly look up to her because she inspires the belief that no matter what people think – you have the power to do anything you want, irrespective of how you look or are perceived. People underestimated her because of her beauty but she broke those barriers.”

Tanisha also names other prominent scientists

  • Katie Bouman – a computer scientist who helped develop the algorithm that created the first-ever image of a black hole. As an aspiring computer scientist, this is very inspirational for me to see women in STEM reaching such great heights.
  • Katherine Johnson, the ‘Hidden Figure’ and ‘NASA Computer’: Katherine Johnson was a mathematician who worked on NASA’s early space missions. She was one of the “computers” who solved equations by hand during NASA’s early years and those of its precursor organisation, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
  • Nandini Harinath was the Project Manager, Mission Design Deputy Operations Director for India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. She is one of ISRO’s leading women scientists. She hugely advocates for the representation of women in STEM and is a great example of how women can balance everything in life and should pursue much greater heights in it!

Local heroes

headshots of Aurora Constantin, Mirella Lapata, Fiona McNeill

Vidminas Vizgirda, PhD student in ILCC, says: “We have many great women at our university”. He gives a nod to his supervisors: Professor Judy Robertson (the image of patience and wisdom) and Dr Fiona McNeill. He says "I’ve learned a lot from [Fiona] about caring for students, especially beginners (having worked together on a course for the last few years).”

Postgraduate student Jessica Ciupa (AIAI) agreed with Vidminas’s nomination of Fiona McNeill. “I attended Fiona’s talk about her life in research and it was inspiring. It’s great to have a great mentor and inspiration in the department” says Jessica.

Students also feel that Professor Mirella Lapata should be on the list. They say: “She’s been hugely influential in NLP research and is very welcoming to students in Edinburgh. She is a great mentor trying to navigate the academic and industry worlds with her connections as a Turing Fellow and Google. It’s so amazing to see a woman being head of a research group!“

Vidminas mentions Dr Aurora Constantin and her work on raising awareness about accessibility and inclusion. “She is always at the Open Art Space and has such a warm personality,” adds Sophie.

Vidminas gives a shout-out to local role models

  • Lorna Campbell – singlehandedly leads the university’s open education service, one of the earliest proponents and co-signers of the Scottish Open Education Declaration. Very kind, helpful, and always full of insight.
  • Alex Burford – learning technologist in informatics who goes above and beyond her role; we’re working on Informatics Open Course together.
  • Kate Farrell – led recent initiative on developing British Sign Language signs for maths and data science. Large scale, she’s working on creating a nationally recognised National Progression Award (high school stream) in Data Science. Fun person to be around and work with.
  • Outside of university, in the local community, two women that spring to mind are Tanya Gaxiola and Jessica Armstrong, who are both very active in the start-up scene, engaging people and hosting events.

The PGR students are all inspired by Dr Athina Frantzana, a researcher in Moray House, who works on issues around widening participation, inclusivity and diversity, feminism and gender equity.

Narmin Mammadova concludes, that it is also important to find inspiration in yourself.

“Over time, I've realised that true inspiration isn't just about looking up to others, no matter how remarkable their achievements. It's actually about picturing where you want to be in the future. For me, chasing the person I want to be in ten years is what really keeps me going. This idea motivates me to keep improving, not just in my career or studies but also as a mother and a wife. So, this International Women's Day, let's not only celebrate the amazing women who've led the way but also take a moment to appreciate our own journeys. It's about the progress we've made, the challenges we've faced, and the dreams we're working towards. Let's find inspiration in the future versions of ourselves, fuelled by our past experiences and the exciting possibilities ahead. Here's to moving forward and growing every step of the way. Happy International Women's Day!”

Related links

The University of Edinburgh International Women’s Day Lecture 2024

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