Azalea & Ada

Today is Ada Lovelace day, a day “about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today”. Lovelace was an incredible woman, described by Charles Babbage as “The Enchantress of Numbers”, and one of the first people to think about the kind of concepts that became integral to modern computer science. Through her understanding of Babbage’s Analytical Engine (a complex invention that was never built, but had many of the crucial features of a programmable computer) she wrote the first computer programs for a machine that didn’t exist. I wrote about how amazing she was as part of a piece for I, Science.

Today is about Ada, but it is also about celebrating inspirational women in science and technology, and given her huge input to my entire education, as well as ANGELINA itself, it seems foolish not to write something today about Azalea Raad.

I met Azalea almost six years ago to the day, in October 2006, as first-year students on Imperial’s MEng Computing course. We met because I was terrible at maths – a staple of our friendship from that day onwards – but we stayed friends because she was and is a fascinating individual, totally dedicated to her work and always interested in sharing knowledge with others. When we sat down later that day so that she could walk through a lab question that was totally confusing me, she explained things with clarity and enthusiasm, something that has served all her tutees well as she did part-time teaching work through her undergraduate degree and PhD.

Azalea is currently researching into formal verification techniques for certain web languages, and it is a joy to see pages full of symbols, letters and tiny diagrams, as I hammer out another silly game about a major political figure. Seeing glimpses of her work is a constant reminder of the formal, beautifully logical areas of computer science, and if given a chance she will explain her work to you with a sparkle and a grin, as she tells stories of realisations and loopholes as if they were epic historical narratives.

Azalea’s willingness to teach, to explain and to share is hugely inspirational as we discuss science communication and how to best present ANGELINA to the world. She is also the supplier of pseudocode and mathematical sketches that power all of ANGELINA’s most mathematical elements, from simulating gameplay to optimising operations so they can be done in hours, not days. I cannot thank her enough for these contributions to everything I have done since those first days at Imperial six years ago.

Our class at Imperial had a female:male ratio of about 1:10, a figure which has only marginally improved since then. Imperial’s notorious gender imbalance produces many problems for female students, not least culturally but also socially. Azalea has always conducted herself well, despite all of the pressures the situation entails. With each generation things become, perhaps, a little easier. But it is partly thanks to people like Azalea, working hard to inhabit a still-hostile field, that these transitions are possible. Colleagues of mine, including Azalea, have been dismissed as inferior, assumed to be hospitality employees at academic events, and ignored in discussions, all simply because of their gender. Today is a great day to remark upon their determination in the face of all of these things, and their desire to leave their mark on a field which they are passionate about. 

After many years, I asked Azalea to marry me, and we now live together in Wimbledon, working on our PhDs side by side. It’s an honour to be able to watch her career begin, and to benefit from her advice and enthusiasm every day. She is a genuine inspiration to me.

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