Woman in Science: Meet SGoaB coordinator Maria-Cristina Marinescu

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February 2021, we talked to Saint George on a Bike (SGoaB) project coordinator Maria-Cristina Marinescu, who also works as a senior researcher at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC). In this interview she talks about the importance of SGoaB research and her fondness for wolves.    

What is your research area?

My research career spans several different areas connected through a common thread that has to do with the design and semantics of programming languages. My background allowed me to apply my knowledge in hardware (automatic system synthesis), in software (widely distributed systems and actor models, software engineering) and in embedded systems.

Unrelated to my programming language background, I also applied Machine Learning techniques to learn expressive models for opera singers (in collaboration with Universitat Pompeu Fabra), and I jointly built a simulator for infectious diseases, which we have now tuned for COVID-19, (in collaboration with Carlos III University and the Carlos III Health Institute in Madrid).

Since I moved to BSC, my past expertise helped me put the basis of the Semantic Technologies area within the Smart Cities group in the Computer Applications in Science and Engineering (CASE) Department. My interest in this field is part theoretical and has to do with understanding the semantics of programming languages – in this case, to perform valid inferences in ontologies. My current line of work is in the areas of Semantic Technologies and Machine Learning.

What is your motivation for pursuing research in this area?

The technical areas that I´ve worked in are all grounded in a strong formalism, but there are also aspects of modeling intuitions and making aesthetic choices involved that are very rewarding. I´ve come to appreciate the importance of working with uncertainty and learning from data, although I believe this alone cannot hope to reflect processes and knowledge that are profoundly human. That is for me one of the main reasons to try to jointly exploit bottom-up and top-down approaches in artificial intelligence to improve the quality of our knowledge.

Seen differently we all witnessed how, in the last decades, massive resources were invested to increase the comfort of a few at the expense of not improving the lives of most and at the expense of the environment. That´s so critically important that I´m often nagged by the question: Am I making any real difference with my work? Focusing on Sustainable and Resilient Cities, Cultural Heritage, and Health is possibly not just an application domain preference, but a way to feel that this may prove relevant when all is told.

I must also admit to enjoying working on a cute idea every now and then without apparent regard for applicability, as much as anyone else.

What would you have done if you were not a researcher?

In Computer Science we have the luxury of trying things out quickly compared to most other scientific fields. This is one thing that makes Computer Science fun for me.

But at the same time, my house is full of (my) drawings, paintings, and architecture books. Talking to architects in Romania of the late 80s about their daily work made me forget about making a career out of something I always loved.

Lastly, and probably most intimately connected to my entire life, are animals and particularly wolves. When I was four I heard a pack of wolves howling while walking in the snow with my Dad. Wolves are amazing, loyal, smart, playful creatures with a bad reputation they do not deserve. I would have loved to work as a biologist and animal behavior specialist in a wolf recovery program.

Have you encountered any challenges in pursuing your research career?

Being in Computer Science certainly made it easier to get funded for a Ph.D. in the US. Being in such a rich environment was an unforgettable adventure; I´ve met some amazing people in my field, and made great friendships. I met with some challenges too.

I think most good scientists judge you by what you can bring to the table. But yes, there exist problems to deal with in a male dominated field. Not just for women, but for anyone who is not super-competitive or resists charging ahead with the first idea. Another manifestation of the same is when people try to talk over you unless you appear aggressive, self-assured enough, or simply loud enough. Addressing them as the adolescents they are often helps.

That being said, I think affirmative action must be applied with great care; I’d rather appreciate a wolf for what it is, than thinking he´s a bad dog with room for improvement if given enough generations. That is, not everyone learns or works best following the same processes, nor do they necessarily consider the same thing as a strength or a weakness. I believe we need not just give more opportunities to people that don´t fit the canons, but rather allow them to do things differently and be evaluated differently for what they can bring to the table.

It seems that there aren´t too many female coordinators in European projects, at least in science and technology. How do you feel about this achievement?

I had great support from my colleagues. The idea came from brainstorming with them, and they helped a lot writing the proposal. I suppose I´m a bit of an adrenaline junkie since I get focused and productive close to deadlines, when others start to stress out. We spent about two weeks of super intense work for the proposal; there´s always a factor of luck involved, and this time it was on our side. We joke that the project name (Saint George on a Bike) was what tilted the scale in our favor.

So how do I feel? Life ́s great, but it can be short if you ́re standing still.

How is your experience managing the Saint George on a Bike project?

Research is fun, and this is a project that is easier to manage than other types of European projects; we only have one partner and we now have a rather fluid collaboration. In almost 1.5 years since the project started, we were able to discuss issues that arose quickly and work out a solution for both parties. As far as I can tell, this open discussion model works out quite well.

In terms of non-technical responsibilities, BSC has personnel that is dedicated to project management, communication, and dissemination. Here I´m happy to mainly provide the content that our two excellently qualified and dedicated women staff ask of me.

Do you think Saint George on a Bike can contribute to society? In what way?

Our project will allow quick access to enriched cultural information, which can serve equally well for cultural and social ends, education, tourism, and possibly for historians or anthropologists. Indirectly the citizens can benefit from better public services, when these are based on the insight that the richer metadata we produce offers – such as web accessibility for the visually impaired or narratives that can expose social injustice or integration and gender issues through cultural heritage corpora and help create a more tolerant European identity. Finally, quality data can support better informed fact-based decision making by public administrations, for instance for assessing and implementing social, cultural, and education policies, or simply for promoting a more cultural form of city tourism, for instance.

What are you going to take on next?

We just started to explore a new technical avenue in this project, and I´m excited about its potential. I believe this could be applied successfully to automatically generate hypotheses about data for the purpose of improving classification, recommending new potential relationships between data, and ultimately enrich it with semantics.

Data quality is one of the biggest problems we are facing today, particularly because we have a plethora of sources of different types and dubious reliability. I believe there are many relevant applications, from education to creativity to support for disadvantaged groups - the socially excluded, the poor, the visually impaired, just to give some concrete examples we are considering.

The bottom line is, do something fun, you will do it twice as well.

Maria-Cristina Marinescu