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Stacey Scott

Hard problems need a team of great people to solve them. This is one of the main reasons I love being in a technical field… I get to work with exceedingly interesting and smart people every day, both here at Waterloo and around the world.

Dr. Stacey Scott is a passionate technology researcher and educator. She received her B.Sc. in Computing Science and Mathematics from Dalhousie University in 1997. She worked as a Software Engineer for two years in Halifax, NS, and then returned to school for graduate studies. She received her Ph.D in Computer Science from the University of Calgary in 2005, where she specialized in the area of human-computer interaction and computer-supported collaboration. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 2005 to 2007 in the department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where she developed next-generation user interfaces for military teams engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (i.e. “drone”) operations.

Now, Dr. Scott is an Assistant Professor of Systems Design Engineering and English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. She is the Director of the Collaborative Systems Laboratory, which specializes in the development of next-generation technologies to support collaborative and social activities. She is also the Associate Director of the Games Institute, an interdisciplinary research institute at Waterloo that is focused on studying the past, present and future of digital games. Dr. Scott’s research interests primarily focus on the design of large-screen surface computing systems, such as interactive walls and tables that support collaboration and socialization in real-world task domains, such as military command and control, emergency response, and gaming. In general, her research interests include computer-supported collaboration, multi-touch surface computing, interface and interaction design, and information visualization.

In addition to her teaching and research, Dr. Scott is also strong advocate of women pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Since she was a graduate student she has actively promoted girls and young women to pursue degrees in technical fields, providing leadership through invited lectures, workshop presentations, and mentorship activities. She also served as the Co-Chair of the Women in Engineering (WiE) Committee at Waterloo for two years, and continues to be involved in many WiE outreach activities.

When she’s not in the lab or classroom, Dr. Scott enjoys spending time with her husband and son. She also enjoys family outings to several nearby parks that allow her two Australian Shepherd dogs to run and play off-leash! Originating from the Maritimes, she also loves all types of water activities, including canoeing, kayaking, swimming, or just sitting on the beach watching and listening to waves. She also enjoys historical architecture, particularly Neoclassical, Renaissance, and Victorian-era architecture, and loves any chance to see “old buildings” in person when traveling.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, what is your current job?

I am currently a professor of human factors engineering in the department of Systems Design Engineering, with a cross appointment in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. As a university professor, I teach undergraduate and graduate students, conduct research and supervise student researchers, as well as carry out administrative work. Typical courses I teach include computer programming, software engineering and design, and user experience design. I am also the Associate Director of the Games Institute at Waterloo, which is a relatively new research institute on campus that conducts research on next-generation digital games. In this role, I help manage ongoing projects, and help raise funds to support future research projects.

What made you want to pursue a career in engineering?

Although my formal training is in computer science and mathematics, I chose to become a professor in an engineering department because I always wanted to build technologies for “real” people and not just other academics. The focus in engineering on industrial partnerships was very appealing to me. Also, the technologies that I was inventing during my graduate studies, and have continued to invent as a professor, were not only software-related. I’m a world expert on digital tabletop computer technologies. In order to meet the research challenges of these emerging technologies, I need students who are interested in both developing software and also in developing new hardware platforms. In my department, Systems Design Engineering, students learn about both hardware and software design throughout their program, and are typically comfortable working on problems that involve both hardware and software challenges. Getting to work with these multi-talented students is a tremendously exciting part of the job for me.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

Igniting a passion for new technologies and seeing a student’s confidence and competence in a technical field grow are the best parts of my job. I particularly love the one-on-one supervision and mentorship of student researchers, as you get to know them quite well over the months or years of a project or thesis. This relationship building and mentorship is extremely rewarding to me. When a student that you’ve worked closely with for several years publishes a paper, gives a conferences presentation, or completes their thesis, it is so exciting to know you’ve contributed to helping them research their personal goals.

How do you celebrate National Engineering Month?

I don’t usually do anything special this month, though typically I’m preparing my students’ exams! This year, I’m excited to be participating in 30 in 30.

What advice do you have for young women who hope to pursue a career in your field?

My main pieces of advice for young women thinking about pursuing a technical career are 1) don’t be afraid to take risks and leave your comfort zone, and 2) be flexible and seize opportunities as they come. The best things that have happened in my life have come from taking (calculated) risks and then making the most of new opportunities as they came.

I have a PhD in computer science and am now a world expert in surface computing technology, yet I wasn’t even considering computer science as an undergraduate degree until my high school math teacher suggested that I consider this (at then time) fairly new field of computer science. I loved math in high school, and was only considering a degree in math, and potentially being an actuary. I didn’t know any computer programmers growing up. I had no idea what the field was. I had taken a very, very basic programming class in middle school and had never used it again. However, my teacher convinced me that, combined with a math degree, this new field would be more practical in getting me a job. I’m so glad I took his advice!

Several years later, when I was considering returning to school for a graduate degree I knew I wanted to combine my technical skills with my passion for psychology and neuroscience (my unofficial minors in undergrad). I researched professors across Canada and narrowed down my search to three professors at Queen’s, MacMaster’s, and Simon Frasor doing research in the cross-section of these fields. After consulting with each professor and getting accepted into each program, I decided that SFU was the best fit for me. I was born and raised in the Maritimes (NS and NB with summer visits to grandparents in PEI). I had never been west of Southern Ontario (where I have relatives). I had never flown by myself. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean, Rocky or Coastal Mountains. I had never lived in a different city than my parents. Yet, I packed up my belongings and moved 3 timezones and an 8- to 10-hour flight (depending on layover) away from all my friends and family. I love my family deeply, and missed them desperately. But, I also made amazing new friends (and eventually my husband through these friends) in Vancouver, and from there, Boston and Calgary, the other cities my graduate and postdoctoral studies took me to. I grew tremendously as a person each time I chose to leave my circle of friends and family to further my career. Each move also broadened my circle of family and friends, enhancing my personal life as well as my professional life.

How would you describe the relationship with your mentor/mentee?

Engineering, computing, and other technical fields are extremely challenging. That’s what makes them so fun! They are also extremely collaborative. Hard problems need a team of great people to solve them. This is one of the main reasons I love being in a technical field… I get to work with exceedingly interesting and smart people every day, both here at Waterloo and around the world. I’ve traveled all over North America, Europe, UK, and Scandinavia, so far, to attend conferences and to collaborate with brilliant researchers working in my field.

Of course, none of this would have been possible if I didn’t have many fantastic mentors, both female and male! Over my student and professional career, I have had many wonderful mentors, including course instructors, project and thesis supervisors, and local and international colleagues. Some I came by through chance, and some may not have even realized I considered them mentors. Others I very purposely sought out as mentors, since they were successful in ways I wished to emulate. Several things I’ve learned over the years, is that you can learn something positive and useful from anyone you interact with, and that there’s always something to learn. Once we become competent in one thing, there’s inevitably something new to learn as technology changes, and as we progress through our careers taking on new roles and responsibilities. This is what keeps the job exciting. Another thing I’ve learned is that mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and ages. As expected, my graduate and postdoctoral supervisors have been exceedingly important mentors. I was lucky to have three brilliant, strong, and extremely successful female supervisors. Each of them have played an exceedingly important role in my professional training and exposing me to key networking opportunities in order to build my own professional network. They were also important personal mentors, as they showed me that women could be successful technology researchers. They were also generous with their advice whenever I was transitioning to a new aspect of my career, and I am tremendously grateful. Perhaps less expected as key mentors for me throughout my career, are my students. Technology in my field changes extremely rapidly. New tools, new hardware, and new software emerge on what seems a daily basis from many parts of the world. It is impossible to keep up with it and do all the other aspects of my job. The great thing is that many of my students, who tend to love technology and love keep up with the latest trends, teach me the newest “coolest” tools as they emerge, and I, in turn, teach them the relevance of those tools in the broader context of the technical field, and which ones are most useful for integrating into our own work. It’s a win-win situation.

Through outreach and professional development activities, research, partnerships, thought leadership and online initiatives, we work with industry and academia to educate on the value of diversity for innovation, to inspire women to thrive and to celebrate the contributions of women in science and engineering.
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