STEMinist Profile: M. Birna van Riemsdijk, Assistant Professor in Computer Science

M. Birna van Riemsdijk

M. Birna van Riemsdijk

Assistant Professor in Computer Science
Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
A fancy brochure and a little encouragement from my dad. I was a typical girl in that I loved animals and wanted to be a vet. Only there was a very limited number of places available in that study programme, and I didn’t get in. Then I received a brochure advertising “medical computer science”. T

his was the perfect opportunity to combine my interest in medicine with my interest in math – and my dad thought computer science would fit my talents. What attracted me at the time is what I still love about computer science: it can be connected to so many different domains that you can always find an angle that really inspires you.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Difficult to choose… What I love about doing research is those magic light bulb moments where suddenly you realize what the solution is to that difficult problem you’ve been trying to solve for some time.

A cool project that we’re working on combines research and teaching. In a first year bachelor project we’re letting students program intelligent software agents to control bots in the Unreal Tournament game. They do that using the agent programming language that we’re developing in our group. In our research we analyze the code of students to identify where they experience difficulties. Based on this we improve the language, tools, and teaching methods. I find it really interesting to develop the language not only based on theoretical analyses, but also using practical experiences of its users.

Role models and heroes:
A famous person I really admire is Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Her TED talk on why we have too few women leaders is so inspiring, after watching it I just wanted to go and do something about it! I got to see her “live” at last year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing where she gave a keynote talk. She’s not only inspiring when it comes to advancing women in computing, but she’s also a truly amazing public speaker.

Besides getting inspiration from people like Sheryl Sandberg, I try to learn from everybody I meet along the way. For example, from my PhD supervisors I got my love of formal semantics of programming languages (rigorous mathematical definitions of their meaning). When I was a postdoc I admired my boss for the breadth *and* depth of his knowledge, and my current boss is showing me how to lead while paying attention to the “human side of science”.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Go and try! In high school I never would have thought I would study computer science, let alone be a computer scientist. I had never programmed when I started my studies, and years later I wrote a PhD thesis on agent programming languages.

And: watch Sheryl Sandberg’s talks!

Twitter: @mbirna

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