“I try to show the other side of robotics, the good side”

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Margarita Chli, 37, is professor and director of the Vision for Robotics Lab at ETH Zurich. Geri_born

Margarita Chli is one of the few successful women in the field of robotics in Switzerland. She advocates for more role models to teach the subject and she also wants to show how robots can benefit humans.

This content was published on November 1, 2021 – 09:00

Margarita Chli’s family inspired her to pursue studies in computer engineering, but it was during her PhD in the UK that she became interested in robotic vision, which allows robots to “see” the world around them and process visual data using sensors, software and cameras. Today she heads the Vision for Robotics Lab at ETH Zurich.

The 37-year-old professor has not only found the ideal conditions for research and innovation in robotics in Switzerland – thanks to generous funding and numerous experts – but also a second home, where the green hills and the lakes and rivers that fill up with swimmers in summer, reminds him of his native island, Cyprus.

Chli is determined to involve more women in robotics, an area she believes will improve the quality of human life, whether through mobile robots in search and rescue missions or in healthcare. personalized. SWI swissinfo.ch asked her about the challenges of studying and working in robotics and how researchers – men and women – could pave the way in Switzerland.

Women in science

Switzerland has fewer female researchers than other European countries. The proportion of women professors is 23% and is even lower in the natural and technical sciences.

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have further limited the scientific work of women: Swiss researchers recently analyzedExternal link thousands of studies published between January 1, 2018 and May 31, 2021 and found that during the first wave of the pandemic, women were less often among the lead perpetrators than in previous years. One possible explanation, according to the authors of this research, was that the researchers struggled to balance work and family during lockdowns and therefore published fewer papers than their male counterparts.

What can be done to close the gender gap and make science more inclusive? In its new series “Women in Science”, SWI swissinfo.ch profiles successful women scientists, in order to inspire and encourage other women to enter the field.

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SWI swissinfo.ch: Do you see more female students in robotics classes than ten years ago?

Margarita Chli: Unfortunately not. It’s a sad story. When I first arrived in Switzerland, there were maybe two girls out of a total of fifty students. It has been ten years since my PhD and I cannot say that I have seen much change in the presence of women in classrooms. Maybe it has to do with my journey and the move from UK to Switzerland. If I’m honest, the situation in Switzerland is worse than in the UK in this regard.

I work in the mechanical engineering department, which traditionally doesn’t attract a lot of girls, but you hear all the time that the sector needs more women and that everything should be done to have more women graduates. It is clear that we need to do more to make our classes more attractive to girls. We are trying to figure out how to do it, but it takes a lot of patience because the fruits of what we are sowing today will only be seen in twenty years.

SWI: When you chose this career, did you know it would be an obstacle course?

MC: I come from a family where sex never mattered in studies and work. So it was a real shock when I realized that there were only three girls out of a hundred students in my computer class. That’s when I started to think that maybe something was wrong.

SWI: How do you encourage women to enroll in science courses?

MC: I think a good strategy is to increase the number of female teachers in order to create role models. We need to encourage girls in any way we can, putting more women in power, promoting discussion and creating more opportunities for confrontation. In this way, perhaps we will succeed in moving, inch by inch, this great rock that history has placed in the path of many women.

SWI: Have you ever felt discriminated against?

MC: Of course, who has never felt discriminated against? I’m not a heroine, everyone has their own stories and barriers to break down. You can be discriminated against because of religion, because of your origin, because of the color of your skin. You have to be able to let it all go and move on towards your goal.

To be successful, it is important to know how to listen to yourself. Maybe men know how to do better. My advice is: don’t listen to the gossip that undermines your path. And if you think you are doing the right thing, don’t stop, keep working towards your goal. If someone thinks you are where you are because you are female, don’t worry. Sooner or later you will prove that these people are wrong. The same advice also applies to men. We need to get rid of gender stereotypes.

SWI: Do you feel inspired by what you do?

MC: Absolutely. I think I have one of the best jobs in the world. I work with motivated people, bright minds who want to make an impact on society. But it is the daily work with the students and the satisfaction of seeing them progress in their journey that satisfies me the most.

The idea of ​​contributing even slightly to improving the quality of life and changing the common vision of robotics is a very important driving force in my work.

Robots are still negatively associated with surveillance and the military. People are afraid of automation and what it can do. It’s true that it can do a lot of damage. But instead of just focusing on this aspect, you should take a look at all the benefits it can bring.

SWI: How do you raise awareness of the benefits of robotics?

MC: Every time I give a talk, I try to show the other side of robotics, the good side. I am talking about the contribution we are trying to make in areas such as search and rescue in the event of alpine avalanches or earthquakes, or monitoring anomalies in factories.

Last summer, entire regions of Greece fell victim to fires. A friend of mine asked me if we could do something with drones to monitor these areas. Unfortunately, we are still so late in the research to be able to do so. But it shows just how much robotics could do to improve our lives.

SWI: Switzerland has decided to break off discussions with the European Union on the framework agreement, which means that the country will not be associated with key research programs like Horizon Europe. Does it affect your work?

MC: Yes, of course, it’s a blow to Swiss research. In the past, I worked on European projects when there were sanctions against Switzerland. Despite this, the Swiss institutions had done everything to make life easier for researchers.

Living in a wealthy country like Switzerland, where the government funds research, helps heal the wound. But it will be important to continue to collaborate with the European institutions, there is a lot to gain. And as a rich country, Switzerland has a responsibility and a duty not only to take but also to give.

SWI: What contribution would you like to make to robotics?

MC: Someone once made me reflect on the fact that my career path was not accessible to women 20 years ago. It’s a great responsibility, but also a very exciting opportunity. My dream is to become a good role model and an inspiration, someone who attracts both young men and young women to the world of science because: “I would like to become like her”. I would like to show everyone what robotics can do for our society and make my contribution to improve it. But who, after all, dreams of something different?


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