Women in Science Day: Sam Nallaperuma

In support of International Day of Women and Girls in Science we invited several members of the TRANSNET Programme to chat about their chosen career paths. Here’s Dr Sam Nallaperuma from the University of Cambridge.

Sam Nallaperuma is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence and member of the Electrical Engineering Division within the Dept. of Engineering at the University of Cambridge. Her research focusses on developing novel performance optimisation methods for optical networks. Sam has been a member of TRANSNET since 2020.

Why did you choose a career in science?

I liked solving puzzles and playing computer games as a child. This made me interested in computer science, which is all about problem solving, and artificial intelligence to learn how these computer games are made.

What's the hardest part of your job?

For my kind of work in modelling, simulation, optimisation and AI applications to engineering fields, it’s vital that our solutions are relevant to real world problems. To achieve that we usually train or validate our models based on real world data. Obtaining real world data is usually the hardest part of my job as it's not always straightforward. For example, it may include working with industry and other external bodies, gaining approvals from several stakeholders and considering privacy security policies regarding sensitive data.

What's the biggest challenge or obstacle you've experienced during your career so far?

Related to the previous point, my biggest challenge so far was during an earlier project which required travelling to several different venues across the UK to obtain real world data; sometimes I had to conduct my analysis there and then due to privacy policies. Nevertheless, we managed to successfully complete the project on time and I enjoyed the challenge. The challenges are what makes it so interesting to be a scientist after all.

And what is your proudest achievement?

Professionally, this would be securing my latest job as Research Associate in Machine Learning for Optical Fibre Communication Systems at the University of Cambridge. Personally, it’s launching the charity foundation Sumithra Foundation to Support Education last year to support school students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

How do you think we can achieve better equality in science?

I am so proud of the way we women have progressed through history from not being able to work or even vote to now, where we’re discussing equal representation in science. Still, we have a long way to go to reach perfect equality. At present, women represent only 26% of graduates in STEM subjects. This falls to 15% in my field (computer science).

Celebrating days like this is a good step to achieving better equality; spreading the success stories of female scientists and raising awareness about the variety of jobs scientific disciplines can offer will motivate fellow girls and women to consider a future career in science. Also, encouraging female scientists to meet and talk to school students is a good way to inspire the next generation to take STEM subjects at university, which may eventually lead to a career in science. There’s also more we can do in early childhood to generate interest in science, such as introducing toys and games that involve problem solving and creativity in addition to the conventional toys given to little girls such as dolls and fairytales.

It’s also important to recognise that some girls across the world are not provided with sufficient resources to learn and study because of disadvantaged backgrounds where child poverty and period poverty, for example, prevent them from education. Providing support to these students so that all children have an equal chance to reach their true potential can help greatly to achieve better equality in science.

What are your interests outside of science and research?

I enjoy travelling and sports like swimming, dancing and skiing. I also like participating in charity work; I’m co-founder of the Sumithra Foundation to Support Education and a volunteer Campaigns Ambassador for Cancer Research UK.

What's your advice for girls or young women thinking about a career in science?

Girls, believe in yourselves and your goals and dreams! I truly believe that if we believe in our goals and work hard enough anything is achievable regardless of our gender. Think about the fantastic female scientists throughout history including Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and Ada Lovelace, one of the first programmers and a pioneer in my field: computer science. Plus, all the millions of female scientists around the world today, including myself.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is implemented by UNESCO and UN Women, and works in collaboration with worldwide governmental, institutional and societal partners, to promote women and girls in science. The purpose of the day is to encourage full and equal access to participation in science for women and girls.