One of the goals of the Gender Equality Commission is to promote women’s involvement in science, so we are publishing a series of stories about women’s experiences. The first story is about Linda Gulbe, who works in the Space Technology Laboratory at the Institute of Electronics and Computer Science and deals directly with developing algorithms and workflows using remote sensing data.

Linda, please tell me who you are and what you do at the institute.

Greetings to all! I have a Ph.D. in computer science and informatics. Now I work on several projects in EDI’s remote sensing department. My day-to-day work involves developing algorithms and workflows that allow us to extract useful information from remote sensing data. Because the data alone does not solve any problems, useful information must be extracted. If we talk specifically about remote sensing, it means obtaining information remotely using sensors located on Earth’s satellites, airplanes, and drones. Consequently, these are vast amounts of data. If we have large amounts of data, entrusting this work to a computer is relevant. The computer does not get tired, it can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Therefore, my day-to-day work is related to developing automated workflows that allow us to find information in the remote sensing data that is relevant to the user.

How did you get into science in the first place? What attracted you to it?

I always enjoy stories about people who since their childhood and school days have known what they will do in life and what their future profession will be. But I’m not one of those stories. During my school days, I definitely could not have predicted that I would work in science, specifically computer science. Looking back, the only thing that might have indicated that I was always interested in books and knowledge, exploring and discovering something more. Nevertheless, my involvement in science was entirely accidental. During my studies, I was offered to participate in research projects. At that moment, I did not yet know what it all meant. However, why not give it a try? And then I started enjoying this process. What currently attracts me most to science is that this work has no routine. Every day is different and you always get to learn something new and do something new.

How nice! For me it was likewise. Getting into science was one of the many things I thought about. You mentioned that you graduated from the Institute of Computer Science and Informatics. Did you study only computer science, or were there also other subjects?

There have been other topics in between. For example, I started my studies at Ventspils University of Applied Sciences and have a bachelor’s degree in computer science. But at the same time, I still didn’t feel 100% sure that computer science would be the right field for me. Therefore, I also studied finance and accounting in parallel. However, during this process, it became clear that computer science is closer to my heart. So I continued my master’s studies in this field at Ventspils University of Applied Sciences, while my doctoral studies were realized at the University of Latvia.

Did you have any specific background that helped you study? Not many people start and finish a Ph.D., so maybe you had some qualities that helped you study.

There are several aspects here. Every person has some things they are better at, and things they are worse at. One of the reasons I chose to study computer science in the first place was that one of the subjects I was good at was informatics. I thought, if I am already good at it, I could try and see what else there is in this field. When I enrolled at the university, I had little idea of what I could do next. Of course, I knew about programmers, I knew about computer system maintainers, and neither option initially appealed to me  as an attractive future profession. However, later I found out that there are many more options. Therefore, the first thing that seemed important to me is that you should like the subject you are studying and you should be somewhat better at it than other subjects. The second thing I believe, particularly when studying computer science, is that dedication and hard work are essential because talent alone does not determine anything. If you have overdue work or do not keep up with your studies, at first it seems that there is no significant harm, but a month or two passes and people realize that they have fallen behind, and it isn’t easy to catch up.

Do you know what your fellow students are doing now?

Undoubtedly, there are many programmers. During this process I have realized that I also like this area and it is very relevant to me. There is also software testing, which many graduates pursue.  Then, of course, there is the maintenance of computer systems and computer networks. Then some coursemates have chosen to continue their academic careers, pass on their knowledge to future generations of students, and become lecturers. Of course, most of all I like seeing people go on to do research. Nevertheless, most choose programming and similar fields.

Yes, computer science is generally associated with programming. That is the first thing you can do – program! But separately about the study program – can you tell us the size of the student group was? Did many people drop out? What was the gender distribution like? For example, when I was studying mathematics, I was told I would be studying among boys, but I was not!

Yes, I was warned about that when I entered the undergraduate program. It was quite a while ago, so I might get the numbers wrong. About 40 people enrolled in the undergraduate study program, there were slightly fewer students in our year, in other years there were more. Of course, girls were in the minority, and there were very few in the master’s program. I think it is the norm for this field. Some professions attract more women, and others attract more men.

Please share what your first work experience was like. Was it related to your field of study or was it something radically different?

My very first work experience was related to wind turbines. It was an exciting project involving Ventspils University of Applied Sciences. The company approached the university with ideas for several wind turbine designs. The question they wanted to answer was: there are 12 ideas, how to understand which one of these ideas is the best for further testing? Building a prototype requires funds and all these experiments are also quite expensive. In the first stage, the company wanted to solve it with the help of numerical programming so that we could numerically model the efficiency of the turbines and see which of the 12 models could be the best. Of course, at that stage, my knowledge and experience could have been better, so great, so I got involved in more minor technical tasks. It was my first experience, and I started leaning towards research. After that, I was offered to participate in a research project specifically in image processing. It was related to what I learned in my master’s studies because then there was a strong emphasis on signal image processing, and then I also felt more confident in my knowledge.

Since you, Linda, work not only at the Institute of Electronics and Computer Science but also at Ventspils University of Applied Sciences, how do you have enough endurance to divide your daily life like this?

Daily planning is a challenge to be reckoned with and quality rest should be ensured. Last semester Ventspils University of Applied Sciences had many courses that happened more on the weekends.However, these jobs complement each other very well. For example, I am more involved in research and solution prototyping at EDI. Meanwhile, at Ventspils University of Applied Sciences there is more of an academic component, talking with students, imparting knowledge, and giving lectures.

What are your current achievements and challenges in science?

At the moment, I’m focusing on the development of solutions for practical applications. Scientific publications are created during this process, which is by no means less important. However, currently it seems more important to develop products for practical use. For example, recently, we concluded a big project at EDI related to stock assessment using remote sensing data. This would allow owners of large forests to assess the situation in their properties. If these are vast areas, it is very convenient to overlook them using satellite data. One of the final results was the development of a software prototype, which allows stock assessments to be carried out. Similarly, in other projects the main goal, the most significant achievements are related to these prototypes.

How do you feel about your potential for career growth? Is there room to grow, or have all you accomplished all your current goals?

It always feels like once you reach one goal, you see the next one, then you reach that one and see another one, so there is always something to do.

How do you get young people interested in science?

School, of course, has a decisive role in this story. Young people must familiarize themselves with different areas from several points of view. I remember that in school there were subjects I felt hopeless at and that I won’t achieve anything in these fields. But then perhaps by seeing it in a different light, by reading books, watching videos, I realized that no, this is a great field too. That’s why, in my opinion, it is essential to spend this time at school exploring different fields and seeing what interests you the most. It is important to do what appeals to you, whether it is STEM or some other field – there must be that pull!

School lays the foundations, which tend to determine what you study in the future. Most likely you will study what you like. What are the topics you might focus on in the future?

I plan to continue working with machine learning in the future because it is an exciting subject – teaching a machine to analyze visual data, which a person does very easily. Meanwhile a  computer has countless challenges, if only because of the diversity of the surrounding environment if we process ordinary photos. In the near future I plan to remain in the same remote sensing field, but no one can tell what will happen in the future.

Do you have any closing words? In conclusion, I would like to emphasize once more that you should use your study time to try out different fields of study and you shouldn’t stop at what the school offers. On the internet, it’s possible to get a lot of information about the day-to-day life of people in different professions and try to imagine yourself there and understand what interests you the most.

Women in science