We meet Didem Gurdur Broo, Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC).
I have many questions that can only be answered by experts. CSIC does not only provide the environment to ask these questions but also has tight links with industry making communications between partners so easy. I hope that in the future I will be able to work with many of them on different projects towards smarter and more sustainable infrastructures.Didem Gurdur Broo, Research Associate
How and why did you get into engineering?
I have always been interested in how things work and I was lucky to have a family who encouraged me to disassemble things to see what they had inside. Other than a few toy cars belonging to my brother, things properly worked after putting them back together (Sorry bro! I think your cars were just cheap toys). When I heard about the Commodore 64 computer, I immediately wanted to have one. After that, I was amazed by computers and started to learn programming languages quite early.
I was already sure that I would be a computer scientist one day when I was in primary school. At the end of the day, I was right. I graduated as a computer engineer. I liked classes on logic design, microprocessors and robotics most, so I continued to work on these topics for my Master’s degree. I assessed different multiplier designs by prioritising energy consumption in microprocessors in my Master’s thesis. Later, I achieved a Ph.D. in Mechatronics. I had the chance to work on cyber-physical systems, such as collaborative robots, autonomous vehicles, and smart systems. I proposed to use data and visual analytics to make these systems interoperable and sustainable.
What is your current position and what does it entail?
Today, I work for the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), and the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology at the University of Cambridge, as a Research Associate. My research aims to transform built environments into smart cyber-physical systems through data and visual analytics approaches. The goal is to propose methods and methodologies to curate, analyse, and visualise data to enable improved decision making during design, construction, operation and management of critical economic management assets and systems. The data can be sourced from remote sensing systems such as satellites and drones, from embedded sensing systems, open data, and even social media data. The project is part of a bigger ambition to develop national-level digital twins for infrastructure, which will transform the way that the built environment is managed in the 21st century.
What motivates/interests you about what you do?
I find my work not only interesting but also fun. I like asking difficult questions, I like taking a step back and to look at the bigger picture. I like not only focusing on answers, solutions, technologies but also the effects of them on society, environment, and the future of the world. It is very motivating to know that the problems we are working on today are going to change the world in the future. In particular, I work with assets such as roads, bridges and cities which provide services and enormous benefits to people every day, every second. I am happy to be part of a centre that cares about delivering and managing a resilient built environment that requires fewer resources and less carbon for its construction and operation.
What has helped shape your career – people, colleagues, family?
I think, firstly, my mother. She was a child during the war in Cyprus and couldn’t go to school during those years, resulting in her being unable to continue her education. She always reminded me of the importance of reading and learning which I took very seriously. I cannot imagine a job that does not push me to learn and read for hours every day. I have a big family and feel responsible to be a good role model for my little niece, nephew, and cousins. I had the chance to work with wonderful people, who encouraged me to do what I liked to do instead of insisting on what they think I should do. That helped me a lot to learn to listen to myself and understand what I want to do and why. Last but not least, my wife. She always supports my career decisions even though it meant me working in another country.
What have you gained from working with CSIC? Or hope to gain?
CSIC is an incredible environment. I enjoy working with so many enthusiastic people who care about their research. It is a new domain for me so I have many questions that can only be answered by experts. CSIC does not only provide the environment to ask these questions but also has tight links with industry making communications between partners so easy. I hope that in the future I will be able to work with many of them on different projects towards smarter and more sustainable infrastructures.
How have you overcome challenges in your working/academic life?
To be honest, I like a challenge; if it is something new or difficult, I take it as an opportunity to learn, to do something new or better. As long as I am convinced to take the challenge, then I am fine with it. Conversely, if I am not convinced, I am at least genuinely honest. I believe being honest is one of the most important requirements for good communication. Life is not easy, science is neither, but we have to all work together, sometimes with other people who are very different to us. Being honest and knowing myself helped me a lot to understand how I feel and how others have felt. The rest is just practicalities. As long as there is trust and a will to learn from each other, we can find a way to work together.
I should add that I’ve had quite a difficult life with a lot of challenges, though I have been very lucky in my work and I never had any really big problems in my academic life. On the other hand, I should also mention that I always knew my rights, always took part in discussions, always signed up in workgroups and worked for change to make that environment more equal, diverse and inclusive. Sometimes, I can be a bit of a killjoy around lunch table but it’s all part of the package – It comes back to learning from each other, having trust and being honest.
What is the best thing about what you do?
The best thing is making the invisible visible by the presentation of data. I do a lot of data visualisations and visual analytics. It is so rewarding to see a graph after working the numbers which would be impossible to understand if only looking at the raw data.
Where would you like to see your career going? What’s next?
I am hoping to get a tenure track position in academia in the coming years. I’d like to build a research group and work on human-centred, sustainable cyber-physical systems. I also want to develop new courses to blend design thinking, systems thinking and future studies for engineering students.
What do you think might encourage more women to work in science and engineering?
I believe women should definitely consider working in science and engineering, endeavouring to make the world a better, equal and more diverse place that we dream of. Today, women’s representation in STEM is not even close to what we aim for. We should challenge this and it can only be done by women understanding their power and engaging with this challenge. I encourage all women to believe in themselves – there is nothing difficult about working in science and engineering. The only thing you need is courage and confidence.
Do you have any advice for women who may be considering pursuing a career in this area?
My best advice is to learn to listen and to understand yourself. That way you can find what is your passion: It is a gift to find that. Do not get scared of failing. Everyone struggles, some just hide it better than others. Do not hesitate to contact people and ask for help or suggestions. Women are, generally, less confident in asking questions or to start conversations. I am hoping that the following generations will change this. We also need more brave women who do not hesitate to share their viewpoints. Speak your mind, trust in yourself and contact people! You will be fine.