My life sci­en­tific

This month, com­puter sci­en­tist Dr Sue Black talks to He­len Pilcher about the trans­for­ma­tive power of tech­nol­ogy and sav­ing Bletch­ley Park

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

With com­puter sci­en­tist Dr Sue Black.

You de­scribe your­self as a ‘tech­nol­ogy evan­ge­list’. Why?

Be­cause tech­nol­ogy changed my life. My mum died when I was 12 and I left school at 16. When I was 25, I had a bro­ken mar­riage and was liv­ing in a women’s refuge. Then, when my kids went to school, I did a com­put­ing de­gree. My su­per­vi­sor asked me if I wanted to do a PhD. I said I’d love to, but didn’t tell him I had no idea what one was!

And then?

Tech­nol­ogy took me from liv­ing on ben­e­fits on a coun­cil es­tate, to the ca­reer that I have to­day as a key­note speaker and com­puter sci­en­tist. It wor­ries me that peo­ple are miss­ing out on op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause they are scared of tech­nol­ogy. We can solve the world’s big­gest prob­lems by em­pow­er­ing dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple with tech­no­log­i­cal skills.

How do you get the mes­sage out?

I set up an or­gan­i­sa­tion called #tech­mums that helps women learn about so­cial me­dia, on­line safety and cod­ing. We teach on­line and in dis­ad­van­taged ar­eas, and re­cently ran #tech­mum­sTV in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Face­book. More than 300,000 peo­ple watched it and we had mums telling us it helped give them the con­fi­dence to seek jobs in­volv­ing tech­nol­ogy.

Should par­ents be con­cerned about so­cial me­dia?

I worry about par­ents ban­ning kids from so­cial me­dia be­cause they might use it any­way, have some­thing go wrong and then have no one to talk to. Peo­ple worry about so­cial me­dia with good rea­son, but it can also be use­ful. It helped us save Bletch­ley Park.

How?

By rais­ing aware­ness. I ini­tially thought Bletch­ley Park was maybe 50 old men who wore tweed and did The Times cross­word and the odd bit of code­break­ing. Then I learned that 10,000 peo­ple worked there and more than half were women. Their ef­forts short­ened WWII by two years and saved 22 mil­lion lives. When I heard Bletch­ley could close, I knew I had to do some­thing, so I turned to Twit­ter. One day, Stephen Fry retweeted me, and for a short time I be­came the most retweeted per­son in the world! I don’t think we would have saved Bletch­ley Park with­out Twit­ter.

Any ca­reer dis­as­ters you’ll ad­mit to?

My lap­top died when I was do­ing my PhD and I lost loads of work. I didn’t ad­mit it to any­one be­cause I was hor­ri­fied. It took me three months to ac­cept what hap­pened, then an­other three to redo it. It taught me to back up my re­search.

Who would play you in a film of your life?

Funny you should ask that. I was re­cently con­tacted by a film di­rec­tor who wants to do just that! I’d have Emma Wat­son for the young me and An­gelina Jolie for the older me. They’re both very #Gir­lPower.

Dr Sue Black is a com­puter sci­en­tist at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Lon­don, and au­thor of Sav­ing Bletch­ley Park (£16.99, Un­bound).

“TECH­NOL­OGY TOOK ME FROM LIV­ING ON BEN­E­FITS ON A COUN­CIL ES­TATE, TO THE CA­REER THAT I HAVE TO­DAY”

MY LIFE SCI­EN­TIFIC

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