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Irune Agirre: "I have always felt in the right place"

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Irune Agirre is a researcher in the area of reliable embedded systems at IKERLAN. She studied Electronic Engineering at Mondragon University, did a Master's in embedded systems and a Ph.D, at Ikerlan in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), on functional security focusing on multicore platforms. On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which is celebrated today 11 February, Irune took part in the forum organised by Garaia Technology Park and Mondragon Goi Eskola Politeknikoa to talk about the reality of STEAM professionals to students from secondary education, Baccalaureate and Professional Training in Euskadi.

She thinks that ignorance and lack of role models are factors in holding girls and young women back from being attracted to studying science and technology. She has always felt in the right place, despite being surrounded by men, and she wants to convey the message to girls that “you don't have to be a genius to choose to study these subjects, all you need is to be interested and to like it, you are fully capable”.

Do you remember having been drawn towards science and technology since your were a little girl?

At primary school I knew that I liked these subjects that people don't usually like so much: I preferred maths and physics to literature.

Did you feel like an oddball??

I have never felt different because of it, perhaps because I have a sister who has also gone down the same road. I have never felt strange, although in secondary school when we took our options, in the technology class there were four girls in a class full of boys.

And when you did your degree?

I think that electronic, computer and mechanical engineering are the areas in which there are always fewer women. In the first year I was the only girl at the centre that MU has in Goierri. Then in Arrasate, there were 30 of us in class and only four girls.

Have you ever heard any comments, such as ‘this is a thing for boys´?

The only thing that I remember is a comment from an old-fashioned teacher. I have always felt in the right place.

Are there few of you or are you not seen very much?

Both things. There are few of us, the data speaks for itself: around 27% and also we are not seen very much. Although this is something that is changing, and in recent years more attempts are being made to give women visibility, many successes achieved by women have been attributed to men.

Is the glass ceiling particularly noticeable in this field?

We start from a point where there are less women, and therefore in the jobs involving decision-making it is very noticeable. In the case of IKERLAN, the proportion of women on the staff is maintained in the proportion of women in management positions. If we look at the technology companies around us, we see that there are not very many women managers.

Does IKERLAN have active policies to attract female researchers?

At Ikerlan there is an equality committee to take steps in this area. At the same time, 20% of CVs received are from women and 80% from men. It's difficult to employ a higher ratio of women. When I was studying there were very few girls and these ratios have not improved.

What do you think about quotas?

I think that the problem should be addressed at the root by encouraging more women to study these types of degree and this will have a knock-on effect in companies. It's a challenge for society as a whole, schools, families and institutions. In this respect, giving women more visibility is key, as well as initiatives such as the one that Garaia Technology Park and Mondragon Goi Eskola Politeknikoa have organised today, so that girls can find out more directly about what we do. I think that when we talk about these types of degrees that girls are sometimes afraid because they don't really know what is involved, apart from the fact that it is seen as a man's world; they don't dare to take this path because there is not much information about what we do day-to-day.

Your work at IKERLAN is on embedded systems. What applications does your work have?

An embedded security system is a small computer that is in the systems that we use in our everyday life: they're in lifts, washing machines, cars. They make the decisions necessary so that, for example, if I put on program 2 on the washing machine, the program runs.

In my day-to-day work, I investigate how to guarantee the security of these systems, because if the washing machine controller fails, the machine stops working; but if it fails in a train, it could cause an accident with personal injuries. The applications of our work are related to the industry that we have around us: lifts, cars, trains, industrial machinery… everything that has a processor and where people's live's are at risk.

Furthermore, it is increasingly challenging to guarantee the security of all these systems because they are becoming more and more complex.

And what does your job involve on a day-to-day basis?

I am involved in a variety of projects, ranging from work for companies to research projects and I support the students that come to us at IKERLAN. For example, I am working on a project for Orona and coordinating the European research project UP2DATE –on remote technologies for updating critical software for the automotive and railway industries–; at IKERLAN we have quite a few students in training, which is how I joined, and in my case I am supervising the Final Master's Project for one student and the Ph.D thesis for another one.

You havementioned the projects funded by the European Union, do they include equality requirements?

Yes, they require the role of women to be developed in the project and for actions to be taken to compensate for inequality. In UP2DATE, for example, we have proposed giving visibility to the women who are working on the project, we monitor the ratio of women involved and when we hire new people for the project we try to take this factor into account.

Do women have a greater presence in organisations in other European countries, from what you have seen in the projects that IKERLAN leads or takes part in?

I don't see any major differences, in some cases, in technical roles, participation is even lower. We ask for data to find out the number of women in the departments and the ratio is maintained at around 25%.

Which women were mentioned during your years of study as being related to your field of knowledge?

Very few, in fact. They do not receive the recognition that they deserve. The names of mathematical formulas or processors have men's names, even though women have been involved in their development. A case close to my field is the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first electric computer that was developed during the Second World War.  The task of programming it was allocated to six women, none of whom were given any credit: in the photos they appeared as models, not as the mathematicians that they were.

Which female role models do you have in mind in your professional field? 

Frances Elisabeth Allen made a very important contribution to developing compilers –which translate human language into the language of machines. In this case, her work has been recognised and she has received several awards, such as the Turing in 2006. She was the first and one of the few women to gain this recognition, which is considered the Nobel Prize in the field of Computer Science. 

Ada Lovelace is another reference, as she is considered to be the first person to create a computer program. Today there is a prize in her honour and there is even a programming language used in secure environments named after her (Ada), although until very recently I was unaware that the origin of the name was due to her because it was not mentioned during my studies and I found out about it by accident.

What do you think events such as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science can contribute?

Due to the numbers, it is still not very common to have a family member or acquaintance who works in this field and is a woman and can share her experience first hand. I had my sister and it is thanks to her that I was able to understand better what it was to do an engineering degree. These events serve to explain it all first hand and to given them the opportunity to ask us questions.  Fortunately, in our world today we have the same opportunities as men to study and work. They have to know that they are fully capable, that you don't have to be a genius, you don't have to be Marie Curie and have two Nobel prizes to work in this field. If they like it, if they're interested in it, anyone is fully capable. The important thing is to want to do it.

What qualities do you think a person needs to work in research?

More than anything, a lot of curiosity and the desire to learn new things all the time, you have to be very open to change and to coming up with solutions. It's a continuous learning experience.

Is research a job or a way of life?

I think it depends on the person and also on the stage they're at. For example, when you're doing your Ph.D, which in the end is a personal project on which you are highly focused, you put your rucksack on the day you start and take it off the day you finish, you take it home with you, on holiday, everywhere. In my case, over time I have learned to switch off more from work and to separate it from my personal life, but still, unlike other jobs, it's more difficult to leave research in the office, and when there are milestone in the work or when you are highly focused on a subject, sometimes you dream about it or ideas come to you when you're cooking or doing other everyday tasks.

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