Essential ingredients in the success of the first woman professor in computer science at ANU
Professor Sylvie Thiébaux still remembers when she realised she wanted to work with computers. “I was around 13 years old. I was at Orly airport, waiting to go on my first plane trip, and the plane was delayed. So I was wandering around the airport newsagency,” says Sylvie, who was born in France in 1968.
“This was in the beginning of the 1980s when computers were first making it into people’s homes, and the newsagency had lots of new magazines all about computers. I read them all, and by the end I was determined to spend my life in computing. It may have been my first plane trip but it was completely overshadowed by my excitement about the wonderful new world of computers and their potential to change our lives.”
Sylvie wanted a computer straight away, but her parents were reluctant to buy one, thinking it would take her away from her school work. She managed to persuade her mother to buy a programming manual for the Commodore VIC-20, the first inexpensive colour computer available for home use.
“I didn’t have a computer but I learnt how to program in BASIC and spent my time in class and out writing programs on paper, mainly games. When the school finally got a computer – which luckily happened to be a VIC-20 – I could test out all my programs.”
Sylvie became interested in mathematics and physics towards the end of high school. She went to the French National Institute for Applied Sciences upon finishing school and completed an engineering degree (Diplôme d’Ingénieur & Diplôme d’Études Approfondies en Informatique) in 1991.
Having been awarded a scholarship for further study, Sylvie completed an MSc in computer science in the United States, and then returned to France to complete a PhD at the University of Rennes in 1995 with a thesis on ‘Time-bounded planning under uncertainty’. It was while she was completing her PhD that she met her husband-to-be, who was a researcher at ANU.
“John’s field of research is logic and automated reasoning – not too far from mine. One of the benefits of having two researchers in the family is that we understand each other’s constraints, we can support each other more effectively, and we can have much deeper conversations about our professional lives. We also have fun collaborating, which is how we met. I followed him to Australia and took up a position at CSIRO.”
Sylvie’s work at CSIRO was about the use of artificial intelligence in transport and travel.
“To most people, artificial intelligence means robots and trying to replicate human intelligence,” says Sylvie. “But my work is not about replicating human intelligence — but about giving it a helping hand. It is about solving problems that are hard for humans because there are so many variables, possible combinations and potential solutions to consider.”
One of Sylvie’s main areas of expertise is action planning: finding out the ideal course of actions to achieve desired outcomes at least cost. Planning is a fundamental type of problem-solving activity which can be used for an enormous range of applications. Sylvie gives the Mars rover as a timely example.
“You need to optimise the rover’s actions and schedule them so that the maximum number of experiments are done in the most efficient way,” she explains. “Just sitting down and trying to figure problems like this out is very difficult, but you can do it using a computer and the power of artificial intelligence.”
Sylvie joined the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science in 2001. “Research is what I am passionate about. I joined the ANU because it is a world-class environment that offered research-intensive positions with full freedom to pursue one’s own research agenda”, said Sylvie.
“But research does bring its own challenges. The top two for me are the difficulty in doing my core work in spite of the bureaucracy of Australian universities and balancing life and work.
“People seem to think that I have found a magic formula in balancing children and a research career. I have not. I don’t do balance, though I would love to be better at it. I am passionate and undisciplined. The reality is that academics work long hours, and our children get used to that lifestyle. I am also lucky to have a husband who has done more than his fair share of the domestic work.”
In 2002, National ICT Australia (NICTA) was established as an independent research organisation with the ANU and the University of New South Wales as founding members (now joined by the University of Melbourne) and funded by the federal and state governments. The universities contribute the time of their researchers, such as Sylvie. NICTA is the largest research centre in Australia dedicated to ICT, with more than 600 researchers and PhD students.
“In a relatively short time NICTA has developed an international reputation as a world-class centre for ICT research. We have six major research groups in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and we are starting to have an impressive list of high-impact outcomes. NICTA has created an order of magnitude more possibilities to pursue significant research. It is a very exciting place!” says Sylvie, who is a Research Leader in the NICTA Optimisation Research Group. Sylvie is currently applying optimisation to the planning and operations of new energy systems.
“In the current grid there are a limited number of power sources based on fossil fuels, which means that power supply is easy to predict and control. However, we are increasingly moving towards a ‘smart grid’, where we will potentially have many millions of generators operating within a meshed structure that will include energy from solar and wind power generation.
“But solar and wind power are also more intermittent and less predictable than fossil fuels. A change in weather can affect power generation. This intermittency means that instead of controlling generation to match demand, we may need to control demand to match generation. Part of optimising the new energy systems will be about smoothing the peaks of demand by using batteries to store and release power or by changing people’s behavior – to make sure people have the power they need, when they need it.”
Sylvie points to her time as NICTA Laboratory Director from 2009 to 2011 as one of her notable achievements, culminating in NICTA’s recent successful funding submission that led to substantial investment in the centre from the ACT Government.
Sylvie also became an ANU professor in 2010. “That was a great achievement, but sadly, I was the first woman to reach this rank in our college. I am relieved to see that a few colleagues will be in a similar position soon.
“What helped me to achieve this was a combination of passion, hard work, obstinacy, family understanding and very importantly, a high performing and motivating environment at ANU and NICTA in my area which provided me with support and opportunities.”
Another achievement is the research group that has developed under her leadership. “Between NICTA and the ANU we have created what is seen by many as the best group in the world in artificial intelligence planning. Members of the group, including me, have made significant contributions to increasing the efficiency of planning systems and increasing the complexity of the problems they can handle.
“Together with other colleagues, we have also been influential in raising awareness of the under-representation of women in our academic discipline and more generally. The University needs women. I believe that diversity is a strong driver of progress.
“Unfortunately, in all fields of academia women progressively drop out and their proportion decreases as seniority increases. An additional challenge in disciplines such as computer science, engineering and physics is that there aren’t many women to start with, unlike other fields such as life sciences. So attracting women, as opposed to just retaining them, is a priority. We convinced our college dean that we needed affirmative action to attract women. Our college put strong policies and structures in place such as women-only appointments and a gender equity committee, several years before the university started to take gender equity issues very seriously.”
Sylvie recommends computer science to women. “This is a very varied and amazing area which will appeal to all sorts of people. Computer science is based on logical reasoning (as opposed to maths) and it has very interesting theoretical aspects which border on philosophy.
“In my experience, women love to see practical applications of what they are doing. These days, progress in computer science and ICT is at the root of progress in almost all fields, so you can apply your skills to virtually anything and produce something useful. Many women are also creative and artistic. Computer science will enable them to design computer programs with their own intrinsic beauty which do impressive things beyond the scope of what humans can do.”