25 March 2020

"My professors did not take me seriously, but I have always been persistent with what I want."

New Professor

On 1 March 2020, Katarzyna Wac became a Full Professor of Health Informatics at DIKU. Since a young age, she has been persistent with what she wants to work with, even though it was not the standard for women in her environment to study Computer Science or conduct the kind of research she is interested in. Today, she is head of the successful EU-supported research theme called “Quality of Life Technologies” that researches technologies for the benefit of everyone’s quality of life.

Portrait of Katarzyna Wac
Portrait of Katarzyna Wac

When talking to Katarzyna Wac, who is normally referred to as Kate, about her new professorship, it seems almost inevitable not to talk about the fact that she has achieved a full professorship in a field that has been male-dominated for years. According to Kate, this is a pity, because in her experience, female computer scientists also contribute with valuable perspectives and solutions, often different than those brought by male computer scientists.

- I would like to inspire more women to study Computer Science. It is my experience that women are more likely to be interested in nurturing perspectives which is very valuable to the field. I’ve seen it often with my students where my female students more often show interest in creating something that involves people’s experience, rather than just focusing on the algorithmic complexity. It is very important to investigate both ends of the spectrum – from algorithms to interviewing end-users about their expectations and opinions, says Kate.

She explains this further by using herself as an example:

- During my student years and my first years as a researcher, I asked my male mentors, “who cares about the end-users?”, and “who asks the users about what we propose in here?”, but I never really got any answers. At that time, the caring-for-the-user perspective was not a big part of computer science. I was advised not to investigate this, and stumbled upon many obstacles along my first year of the PhD program. My PhD was about the quality of service in context of mobile services. But really, I wanted to work with the quality of experience and eventually the quality of life like I do today, says Kate.

Why are you studying so hard, woman?

Kate grew up in communist Poland where she saw how her father couldn’t get permission to carry on his studies in Engineering because he was not a member of a communist party. He was very enthusiastic about his profession and did not buy into the claim that technical subjects were confined to boys. He encouraged Kate and her three sisters to help with technical things around the house, which inspired Kate to choose a technical high school programme, even though classes consisted of 20 boys and only 5 girls.

Kate did not have an easy way into the field, to begin with. After high school, she went to the Wroclaw University of Technology to study Computer Science in 1998. Here, she was one out of two young women, sitting next to 300 young men. Obviously, this was not always a particularly easy environment to be in for Kate and her fellow female student, but Kate did not hold back.

- One professor asked me why I was studying so hard when I would nevertheless end up becoming a secretary. That was horrible. I considered studying psychology as well, but I loved math and physics so much I stayed. I was one of the top students, and one time, one of my professors admitted it, even though he didn’t like it. However, my grades were never the most important thing to me. I studied “like hell” but I loved it, and nobody was going to stop me. It was actually not really until I came to the Netherlands in 2001 that I realized how hard of a beginning it had been, says Kate.

An exchange visit at the University of Twente in the Netherlands became Kate’s pass to leave Poland and begin an international career. After only two weeks, Kate knew she wanted to stay and study her entire Master in Telematics there because of the more diverse and friendly atmosphere. When she moved to Twente, her English was just sufficient to communicate properly and it took a lot of effort to get on top of her grades and pass the exams and be able to continue – but she was determined to stay.

When she graduated successfully, she applied for her PhD in Information Systems at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Afterward, she went to the United States to explore the Human Centered-Computing (HCC) field, and from here, she wrote her first European proposal contributing to the Quality of Life Technologies theme that she leads today. In 2010, she received her first 1 Mio euros for the collaborative project from the EU’s Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) programme.

Improving the quality of life through technology

In the Quality of Life Technologies lab (QoL), Katarzyna and her colleagues develop technologies to assess and improve health, well-being and thus the quality of life. They collect data on people’s health and use machine learning techniques and advanced algorithms to develop technology for apps and wearables which will function as “quality of life agents” and support individuals to understand and improve their behaviors and quality of life. Specifically, the project has developed a number of computational models that assess the quality of various factors that affect our quality of life, such as physical activity, sleep, stress, and pollution.

- Our goal is to make this technology accessible to everyone so that everyone will be able to use it to track their behaviors and, for example, discover if a specific lifestyle could lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, in a long term. In that way, we would be able to save money on healthcare, says Kate. 

Also, the Quality of Life technologies will be particularly relevant to the healthcare system, where general practitioners will be able to use the technology as support when diagnosing and treating patients and follow-up with the behavior change in between the visits in the clinic.

- Technology should never replace people but it is helpful to combine data and people. Take sleep for example – the quality of sleep is highly individual. General recommendations say that we should sleep between 7-9 hours every night, but a person might feel rested and happy after just 6 hours. If the general practitioner only looked at data saying that this person only sleeps 6 hours per night, the general practitioner would not get information that is nuanced enough, Kate explains.  

At the moment, QoL has five ongoing grants, 4 PhD students and 1 Postdoc, plus one affiliated medical student. Additionally, selected studies of the QoL lab are conducted at Stanford University and Stanford Medicine, with which Kate is affiliated since 2013. 

Progressing in the right direction

Kate is positive that we are heading in the right direction, both when it comes to how women in computer science are doing today, and when it comes to integrating the user perspective into computer science-driven research.

- I think that young women today have more opportunities to contribute to computer science today, than it was in the past, and I am hoping I contribute to this trend as well, given my encouragement for my students, mentees, and collaborators. As for integrating the user, I think we are progressing very well. We are incorporating user-centric approaches in our research, when appropriate; especially in the healthcare domain, where lack of assurance for human factors may, in extreme cases, cost lives. Also, there’s a new translational research field focusing on translation of results from basic research to daily practice. This means science is expanding in all directions and user-centricity is taken into consideration, when needed. We still have a lot to do, but we are progressing in the right direction, says Kate.