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27.10.2023
Valeriya Khan, a PhD student at IDEAS NCBR, talks about her path to IT research, difficulties in combining starting a family with a scientific career and what would help women researchers the most. 

What made you decide to pursue a research career in AI? 

I have been interested in mathematics since school time. My passion for technical subjects was encouraged by my parents and my grandfather, who was professor of geometry in the university. I participated in mathematical Olympiads and scientific project competitions. Therefore, I decided to pursue a career in the technical field. 

When the time came to choose the departments at university, I decided to pursue a degree in robotics. I had this thought that the next technical revolution would be in this area, and I wanted to be a part of it. Soon I realized that robotics is a combination of many different components such as programming, math, and control. I had several courses in machine learning and decided that it is an ideal combination of math and programming for me.  

My decision was confirmed when I started a graduate project in AI. It was the most challenging and interesting work I had ever done before. I was completely immersed in it. And it was when I realized that I wanted to become an AI scientist. 

Do you think there is a gender disproportion in the number of AI/ML experts? 

Definitely. 

Don’t you think that women are pressed in various ways to resign from education in favor of getting a job or starting a family? Is it widespread in your country of origin? 

A career in science can be challenging in many ways for both genders. Pursuing PhD, for example, may delay time when you can financially provide for your family. In my country, financial responsibility often lies on men. 

Considering women, we are restricted by biological clock. I am talking about the probability of having children which declines with time. If you want to have children, you also need to choose the time when to have them to minimize the effect on your career. In addition, in my country, caring for children is often considered as a woman’s responsibility.  

These factors may affect the decision of a person to pursue a scientific career. 

What, in your opinion, could change that situation? 

I think that providing help and support in family matters can change the situation. The choice between pursuing a career and starting a family is a tough one, and I think it shouldn’t exist at all. A smooth return to work after parental leave would help to close the gap in knowledge and experience that appeared during the break. 

Many countries have laws supporting parents after childbirth. However, I was surprised to know that in some countries it is still an existing issue.  

As I have not gone through this process yet, I cannot recommend any specific steps. But I think that improvements in this direction can help women to decide to pursue a scientific career. 

How can women contribute to the development of IT science? 

The goal of any scientist is to expand the existing knowledge and methods by performing research and experiments. I believe that women can perform research on the highest level and contribute to AI through hard work and dedication. 

If you were to point out one character trait that describes a good scientist, what would it be? 

Curiosity. 

What is more valuable for you – theoretical or practical research? Which one do you prefer? 

I do not think that comparison of theoretical and practical research is valid. They are both equally important. Practical research improves the quality of life and solves existing problems. Theoretical research serves as the basis for practical applications. 

I think that my research is on the edge of theoretical and practical research. We try to solve the very practical problem of continual training of AI models. While we solve this problem theoretically, our methods can serve as a basis for solutions of more specific cases of this problem in industry. 

What is the interest in AI/ML among students and PhD students in your country? Are there any related cultural factors that can encourage women to pursue their careers in AI/ML or discourage them? 

The interest in machine learning is rising in Kazakhstan. More and more companies and people are starting to explore the field.  

Family is considered as the most important thing in our culture. Therefore, it is possible that women can choose less challenging career paths to spend more time with her family.  

It is reported Kazakhstan promotes gender equality a lot these days, at universities and in other fields. Have you experienced it? Do you think it’s an opportunity for girls and women, who previously wouldn’t have chosen to study IT? 

Many of the programs started when I already started studying in the university. Therefore, I did not have a chance to experience them myself. 

Moreover, I do not think that girls and women need special programs to encourage them to choose IT. They are able to build successful careers without all these programs and advertisements. As I already said, we need support to eliminate the choice between family and career and allow people to choose freely what they want to do in life. 

Valeriya Khan is a PhD student at Warsaw University of Technology and researcher at IDEAS NCBR, belonging to the research team of Bartłomiej Twardowski. She focuses on the issue of continuous learning of generative models. Before joining IDEAS NCBR, she worked on a Samsung team developing computer vision algorithms for eye tracking. Recently, a paper by IDEAS NCBR Continual Learning research team – Valeriya, Sebastian Cygert, Bartłomiej Twardowski and Tomasz Trzciński – got accepted at the ICCV 2023 Visual Continual Learning workshop. Read more

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