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Computer Science

Possible dialogue

Award-winning dissertation of Unicamp student enables biologists to handle data collected using various methodologies

BUENOJaudete Daltio, aged 25, from the state of Espirito Santo, won first place, in the dissertation category, in an annual context held by SBC, the Brazilian Society of Computer Science, which acknowledges the best Brazilian undergraduate, master’s degree and doctoral work in this field of knowledge. It is quite a competitive event, in which hundreds of candidates submit articles summarizing their contributions; the ten best ones in each category then defend their work to a board of five professors. A FAPESP grant holder, Jaudete ran against another 70 dissertations, in a universe of some 800 master’s degree thesis in 2007. Her prize, announced in the 28th SBC Congress, held in Belém, state of Pará in July, drew attention for two reasons. First, the quality of the dissertation. Under the guidance of Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, from the Unicamp Computer Studies Institute, Jaudete proposed and implemented a set of algorithms that resulted in a tool capable of helping biologists to handle biodiversity databases.

There is a natural difficulty in using such information as it is supplied by different research groups, that collect it using different vocabulary and methodologies. To expand the capacity of correlating information from different sources, Jaudete linked the data to ontologies that, from a computer science point of view, represent sets of concepts of a domain and their relationships. The system, named Aondê (meaning “owl” in Tupi, a native language, and a reference to the ontologies representation language called OWL in English) is a web service that offers operations for storing, managing, searching, ranking, analyzing and integrating ontologies. Let us suppose a biologist wants to learn about the interactions between insect A and plant B. Well, the system tracks the existing information and interactions taking into account not only the terms A and B, but also a set of concepts that is applicable to these subjects. “Jaudete’s work enables one to discover new notions, by correlating the work of several research groups, even if they use different vocabulary,” says Claudia Bauzer Medeiros. Prior to developing the ontologies server, Jaudete had researched existing systems and algorithms to understand why they did not satisfy the biologists. “In this long-winded work, she showed all the defects she found, which was quite a job. These defects were generally related to promises that the tools were unable to fulfill,” says Claudia.

Jaudete’s award-winning also stood out for an involuntary merit. She was the only woman among the 28 finalists in the three categories of the SBC contest. This is yet another symptom of the rising and worrying disinterest of women in computer science. “I can’t figure out why it is so, because for me, the field is extremely attractive,” says Jaudete. “The intriguing thing is that disinterest has been rising in the last few years. I’m currently working for a firm, among more experienced professionals, and the ratio of women is greater than in my undergraduate course,” she states.

The phenomenon is global and there are no simple explanations for it. According to data compiled by SBC, the percentage of women in graduate computer science courses is some 30%, which is reasonable relative to the world standard. As for undergraduate courses, estimates indicate the share of women has dropped from 30% 15 years ago to less than 10% at present. According to Claudia Medeiros, one of the most common hypotheses is that girls are being encouraged by their parents to go into other careers. “Computer science, in the eyes of many parents, is not a very interesting area,” she says. Another hypothesis is that women are less interested in activities that do not involve people. “If she feels that working in the computing area is about only dealing with computers or developing programs, disinterest will arise,” believes the researcher. “But this impression is false. Computer science permeates all our activities and is recognized as ‘the third pillar’ upholding scientific research, along with theory and experimentation. Hence the need to show youths what such a career is about,” she states. Companies such as Intel, Microsoft and HP feel it is fundamental to ensure gender diversity in high-technology research in order to remain competitive globally. “US statistics show that patents put forth by mixed teams generally achieve greater impact,” says Claudia Medeiros.

Coming from Cachoeiro do Itapemirim, in the state of Espírito Santo, Jaudete Daltio graduated in computer science from the Federal University of Viçosa in 2005. Influenced by her professors, she signed up to do a master’s degree at Unicamp. Unable to afford to live in Campinas, she tried to define her research theme in order to apply for a Fapesp grant, which she won. The ontologies server had already been forecast in a biodiversity systems project headed by professor Claudia Medeiros and coordinated by Thomas Lewinsohn from the Unicamp Biology Institute and which had been financed, as of 2005, by Microsoft. After defending her dissertation in August 2007, Jaudete started to take some of the disciplines of the PhD course and is still involved with scientific production connected to her research – which has already yielded two papers at congresses and one article in an important international publication. However, she is unsure whether she will pursue an academic career. Recently she took a job offer at CPqD (Center for Telecommunications Research and Development) and is enthusiastic about the work. “It’s interesting to work with large teams and to follow the full lifecycle of the products we develop,” she states. He dissertation supervisor laments this, but admits that the student’s choice makes sense. “The market is buoyant, paying more to those who have professional experience than to those who have a PhD but she has never worked for a company,” says Claudia Medeiros.