The International Girls in ICT Day is celebrated traditionally on the fourth Thursday of April. Established by the UN, this day aims to find ways to encourage women to join the Information Technologies sector and to contribute to innovation and technology. Dedicated to the occasion are stories from two international TalTech PhD students in the field of IT. Cecilia Monoli from Italy and Valentyna Tsap from Ukraine talk about their research, free time activities, achievements, and plans for the future.
Biorobotics in Tallinn
I come from a typical “big and loud” Italian family, full of inspirational people from whom I am trying to learn as best as I can.
I studied biomedical engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan, both bachelor’s and master’s. During my master’s, I decided to participate in the Erasmus+ project and ended up spending a year at TalTech. Tallinn was my first destination choice, and I fell in love with the city as soon as I landed. During the Erasmus year, I met fabulous people and friends with whom I am still in touch.
Importantly, during my Erasmus year, I attended a course in robotics, held by Professor Maarja Kruusmaa, and I decided to ask her if it was possible to do my master’s thesis in her laboratory. This is how I ended up meeting the people with whom I am working right now. Because after my master’s thesis, the Center of Biorobotics asked me to start a PhD with them.
So, here I am! Since October 2019, I am a PhD student at TalTech Center of Biorobotics. My research is in the field of environmental sensing and combines the amazing technologies developed by the lab with my medical knowledge. More precisely, my PhD is focused on the mixed-perceptive investigation of motion and kinematics of both humans and animals. We are currently working on different projects, one foresees the development of a monitoring method for underwater rehabilitation and will involve hospitalized kids with cerebral paralysis; while another is focused on the analysis of the motion of dogs. I can’t express enough how proud I am to be a part of all this!
Make discoveries and help others
I’ve always been keen on helping others, and since I was young, I’ve tried to combine this will with my curious and “nerd-ish” character. I think the main reason that convinced me to start this PhD is that I had the opportunity to balance this mixture. I am trying to merge informatics and my academic soul, the will to discover, and the prospect of helping people. In this research field, I feel I found a way to be helpful and figure something out.
Women in the IT environment
I have to admit I never thought about being in “a man's environment” or doing “a man's job”, probably because I like my job, and I would do so regardless of the composition of the workers surrounding me. I also have to say that my working experience couldn’t be better. I have the honor and pleasure of working with very nice people who are always there for me and willing to help. The work environment could not be more vital and proactive.
I like to go running and walking, enjoying the wonderful Estonian nature. Also, I played volleyball for most of my life, and I would like to soon find a volleyball team here in Tallinn too.
Achievements and plans for the future
Considering my academic life, since I just started, I think my biggest achievement was my master’s degree and my first publication. As for my plans, they consist of building a good research network and carrying out my research as well as I can. Thinking about my personal life, I would like to build a family in a few years, but no pressure!
Acceptance of e-identity
I was born and grew up in Ukraine, where I also gained my bachelor’s degree. After that, I graduated from the TalTech master’s program E-Government Technologies and Services. I started my PhD studies in the field of e-governance and got a position at the Department of Software Science, School of IT. I am also a member of the Information Systems Group. My research is devoted to electronic identity. I am researching public acceptance of e-ID, a multidisciplinary phenomenon on the border of IT and social sciences. Very often, it becomes a subject for discussions between my colleagues, but I lean towards IT myself. The topic of my research evolved from my master’s, and I am glad to have an opportunity to continue with it.
Ever since my childhood, I have felt comfortable around computers and English. My parents were always encouraging and supportive when they saw there was potential in my interests. I remember them saying that it would be nice if I went to study abroad. Later they helped me with that, I owe them.
TalTech changed everything
Honestly, I didn’t have a clear vision back then. My twenties were approaching, and I just knew that I’d like to pursue a master’s degree abroad. My background was linked to IT and
international relations. And one day, the opportunity presented itself. TalTech and the e-government study program found me, and that changed everything.
Eventually, when the studies were about to finish, and I was wrapping up my thesis, I was suggested to try my chances in applying for a PhD position. It was big for me, and I went for it. Shortly after I was enrolled, my first scientific paper based on my master’s was accepted to a conference — my first achievement in my academic career. It is special for me because it fosters me. Frankly, if you’re consistently working on anything, you will learn inevitably, even you might not realize it right away. My field, aside from the obvious aspects related to its specifics, also teaches me to be disciplined, systematic, rational, objective, analytical, creative. Additionally, it is also super exciting because my job lets me travel, and I love it!
In Estonia, where IT is thriving, both genders are involved, although not evenly. I feel very comfortable here, I haven’t witnessed or experienced any particular stereotypes myself. The only thing I’m often asked is when I started my PhD studies as I am 26, and indeed, in most situations, I am one of the youngest among other students/colleagues.
Simple things — reading, exercising, cooking, spending time with friends. I have an interest in nutrition science, a healthy lifestyle, self-development, spiritualism. As a hobby and previous job, I was into professional photography. Sometimes, I still take pictures just for myself. Since I moved to Estonia, I have been (at least till now) traveling a lot, and even when it’s a work trip, I try to enjoy it to the fullest and soak in every moment of it. I learned that the balance between work and rest is crucial, so I am trying to maintain it. Taking care of yourself is also a job.
Achievements and plans for the future
I would not distinguish any particular achievements. I am just glad about where I've come considering where I started from. I am grateful to myself for every little step I’ve made and to those who have been helping and supporting me in every possible way. When I lose my motivation or will to continue (because let’s face it, it’s not always success and triumph), I just go back in my mind to the times when I was at the beginning, not knowing what is out there, and it makes me inspired again. Right now, I am focusing on finishing my PhD. Soon I will start compiling my manuscript. I have several ideas in my head about what to do next, but I also choose not to rush into anything as I learned to trust the situation. Time will show.