Community News Interviews Magazine

Women for STEM: spotlighting the heroines behind the scenes

In previous years, GÉANT has celebrated Women’s History Month each March by highlighting women within the community working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) roles and interviewing them in order to celebrate­­­­ their achievements and discuss the barriers they face.

However, this year we wish to raise visibility of those women who are usually perceived as working ‘behind the scenes’ but are actually at the forefront of ­­­Women for STEM and are women who, with their job role, work in support of the technical activities of our community, leading project milestones and successes. These supporting roles range from communications, project management, partner relations, to procurement and finance, to name a few. The focus is on job roles that, despite not being “technical” such as STEM, have the objective to support the successful planning, promotion, and execution of the GÉANT community’s specialised activities. Through this new perspective on the roles of women in our community, we wish to expand the focus to include more of the contributing actors, to show the variety of non-technical professions and how they are all tied to each other and working towards the same goals.

The first woman we spoke to was Tetiana Preobrazhenska, who is the Marketing Communications Manager for URAN, the Ukrainian Research and Academic Network. Tetiana joined URAN in 2018 as a marketer. She is responsible for URAN’s marketing communications, social networks, website, and international contacts.

Communicating during times of war

My job is to keep the research and education (R&E) community in Ukraine informed about the benefits they can derive from GÉANT and URAN’s network and digital services, as well as from participating in the GÉANT community. I communicate this through publications on URAN’s social media, newsletter, and website. Since February 2022, following Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, my role has become especially vital. The extraordinary circumstances have created new needs for R&E, making it extremely important for them to learn promptly about opportunities for addressing these needs through cooperation with URAN. I reported on the opportunity to secure institutional data in clouds of leading global providers, fundraising for a university struck by a Russian missile, and aiding universities relocating from Russian-occupied cities within Ukraine.

 I had to work in a bomb shelter during air raids or in a dark room during blackouts caused by Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Working under such conditions was challenging and frightening, but my motivation stemmed from the understanding of how important and welcomed such information is for researchers and educators, and how useful and timely URAN’s and GÉANT’s assistance is for them. In dark times, helping others and believing in the importance of your actions greatly aids in your resilience.

After talking with Tetiana, it is clear to see the importance of communications during such a catastrophic time, and as a community we will continue to show our love and support for URAN. Our global community can be filled with highs and lows, but we come together to support one another which is what makes us so unique, and why we value building genuine and meaningful global relationships.

To learn more about the importance of this from a different perspective, we spoke to Helga Spitaler who works within the International Relations team at GÉANT as Senior International Relations Project Manager. Helga operates in a complex project environment characterised by, among others, two very diverse communities as she supports and engages with Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. Establishing very meaningful connections within the community, she has supported several innovative breakthroughs, in particular GÉANT’s involvement in the multi-million-Euro Medusa submarine cable project aimed at boosting trans-Mediterranean R&E connectivity. The European Union’s first Global Gateway project also sees the participation of the European Commission, the European Investment Bank and Medusa promoter AFR-IX Telecom.

Around the world collaboration

Helga SpitalerComing up to my 20th (!) work anniversary at GÉANT, people (and quite frankly I myself) ask “what is it that keeps you there?”. The answer is simple: having the feeling of making a difference, be it by bringing likeminded people together and facilitating fruitful collaborations across borders, or challenging difficult market conditions when connecting the unconnected. While I was in charge of the promotional side of network projects around the world, I developed a passion for demonstrating particularly the societal impact of NRENs, such as helping a baby patient in Vietnam get better through teleconsultation, a rice farmer in India to save his livelihood thanks to resilient rice varieties as a result of data-intensive crop research, or enabling e-learning for children in remote areas. Now that I have moved on to managing such projects myself, I can bring and show value in different ways. Medusa, for instance, is set to become a gamechanger in connectivity provision between Europe and North Africa, and I am proud that as coordinator among all stakeholders involved, and with the invaluable support of my more technically-minded colleagues, I am part of the conception and implementation of the EU’s first digital Global Gateway project.”

Helga describes and acknowledges the importance of collaborating with her fellow STEM colleagues. These collaborations are key in a STEM environment such as the GÉANT community to ensure we can work together to produce the best outcomes possible.

The next testimonial from Marina Dimić Vugec also focuses on the theme of collaboration. Marina is currently working as Head of the Department for Cyber Security Management in the National CERT which is a sector in CARNET – the Croatian Academic and Research Network. Marina describes herself as a “career butterfly”. Her primary profession is a social worker, however during her student and professional life she was mostly involved in project management for social policy, civil society development, sustainable development, community organising, and from 2017, cyber security awareness raising and education.

Sparking interest in cyber security

Marina Dimić VugecOur small team is dedicated to cyber security awareness raising activities and education, security policies advisory, maturity assessment, organisation of cyber security events and exercises, and trainings for children and youth. My work experience in cyber security, in what was still a technical field at the time, began six years ago with the design of the first national campaign to raise awareness about the importance of cyber security called ‘Great Croatian Naifs / Veliki hrvatski naivci’. In that time, I was primarily a student and listener learning from engineers, software developers, system administrators, pentesters and incident handlers about malwares, phishing and ransomware attacks. This enabled me to explain these topics to an average user using non-technical language and it sparked an interest for cyber security.

It is a real challenge to find effective ways to impact the change of behaviour and habits of the various users of today’s Internet-connected technology to act responsibly, correctly, and to protect themselves, and others, from potential financial harm or cybercrime. As we are different and unique in the real world, we are different in our expression and use of digital technologies and appearance in cyber space. It is challenging, but always driving, to use innovative approaches, methods, and words which can really make a difference and be heard from those to whom you are addressing.”

Marina’s genuine passion for her job and the joy she finds in carrying out this work is evident from her testimonial.

This is something Monique from GÉANT also relates to, and goes on to explain the importance of. Monique Pellinkhof is a Senior Procurement Manager at GÉANT, working as Task Lead in the Cloud procurement task on the GN5-1 project, and has played a key role in the OCRE and EOSC Future projects. She joined GÉANT at the time that the OCRE project needed to distribute EC adoption funding for Cloud services to individual research projects across Europe. She developed a highly innovative distribution mechanism which allowed GÉANT to procure Cloud and Earth Observation services via the OCRE framework on behalf of research institutes across Europe. Monique’s enthusiasm and ability to innovate underpinned these efforts of distributing over €17 million of funding across 45 research projects in total.

Procuring for the community

Monique PellinkhofI find that there is never a dull moment in procurement! Being a contracting lawyer from origin, I love the fact that it adds negotiation, dynamics, and commercial and user perspective to contracting. As contracting authority, you actually have the opportunity to add more intrinsic value, being part of the bigger picture and facilitating collective interest. My favorite thing about my work at GÉANT is the fact that it gives me the opportunity to contribute to R&E and the greater good by providing aid in, and knowledge of, procurement and legal frameworks. Adding value and direction to the supply chain at the root. To get the best outcome on a procurement, is it essential to take all interests into account: supply, demand, competing solutions, legislation, make the conversion, and to come to a win-win situation in a continually changing environment. Being on top of innovation and development of all aspects is key and this is why it’s important to break away from your desk and continuously engage with users, suppliers, and legislators, which is a perfect match with my personal need for motion.

The success of a project such as OCRE relies on people like Monique and her team working ‘behind the scenes’.

Another example is the AfricaConnect3 project, a €37.5 million project co-funded by the European Union, where Beatrice is currently in charge of the financial and administration management. Beatrice Ng’ambi has been working with the UbuntuNet Alliance from the very early stages of the organisation and contributed greatly to its success. She is currently the Acting Finance and Administration Manager, where she is in charge not only of the financial management and administration for the regional network for Eastern and Southern Africa but also for AfricaConnect3. Her role involves providing in-depth financial information to facilitate the delivery and monitoring of the project’s objectives and costs. Her day-to-day activities cover management and administration of financial reporting, manpower reporting, timesheets and other regular tracking of costs and finance progress, as well as providing support for the project governance for the project and organisation.

Attention to details and comprehensive overviews

Beatrice Ng’ambi“As one of the inaugural members of the UbuntuNet Alliance, I have had the privilege of witnessing the organisation’s remarkable growth. From its humble beginnings as a project at the University of Malawi-Kamuzu College of Nursing, now Kamuzu University of Health Sciences (KUHes), we have evolved into a robust force driving research and education networking across Africa. My role has undergone a significant transformation over the years, progressing from establishing foundational financial and administrative frameworks to navigating the complexities of multi-million-Euro projects like AfricaConnect3.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is maintaining a comprehensive overview of all organisational activities, ensuring meticulous recording and accounting for costs and progress. It brings me immense satisfaction to witness the tangible impact of our efforts on advancing education and research collaboration in the region. Establishing personal networks with colleagues from various NRENs within and outside the UbuntuNet Alliance, especially inspiring women in research and education networks like Margaret Ngwira, Dr Iman Abdelrahman and Cathrin Stӧver, just mentioning a few, has been both enriching and motivating. In my role, qualities such as attention to detail, strategic thinking, and effective communication are paramount. The dynamic nature of the work demands adaptability and a steadfast commitment to the organisation’s vision. It’s a privilege to contribute to the success of the UbuntuNet Alliance and play a part in shaping a connected and empowered future for African education and research communities.”

Moving from Africa to Latin America, Tania Altamirano, like Beatrice, points out that the people within our community aid their drive to continue working hard and to push through various barriers they face in their working environments. Tania is the Academic Relations Manager for RedCLARA, the Latin American Cooperation of Advanced Networks. She is Nicaraguan and has lived in Chile for 18 years. With a background in social communications, Tania joined RedCLARA in 2009, and is currently dedicated to articulating initiatives on priority areas such as eHealth, climate change, education, the development of engagement strategies for the BELLA II Project, and leading the regional work group for gender equality.

Creating pathways to connect and evolve

Tania AltamiranoI am deeply passionate about my work and have had the privilege to participate in impactful projects like ELCIRA and MAGIC, collaborating with colleagues worldwide. Great opportunities have come with my job (services, proposals, articulating initiatives), however what truly motivates me is contributing to ensure that the real impact of all the large infrastructure that is being developed for research is not just about laying cables and technical details, it´s about creating pathways to connect people and ideas to address common challenges. In 2023, we extended invitations to Latin American NRENs to explore opportunities to support gender equality and the participation of women in science and technology across the region. With representatives from Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil, a working group was established to develop a regional gender policy (soon to be launched). Our aim? To bring the topic to the forefront and contribute to reducing the gender gap.”

Gender policies are (rightly so) starting to become more of a focus for various organisations, which is especially important in STEM working environments. However, creating the policy is simply not enough. The only way we will see this long-awaited change is through the actual implementation of these polices, women and men educating themselves, taking accountability for their own actions, attitudes, and behaviour. As a CEO, Gitte can empathise with the challenges women who work within a STEM environment experience.

Gitte Julin Kudsk has had various experience working in supporting roles, such as the former Head of Secretariat and Communications of DeiC, and is now leading the organisation as CEO of the Danish NREN since the beginning of 2021. She has been involved in, and jointly responsible for, the development of DeiC since 2012 but has over 20 years of experience in the realm of digital infrastructure, in addition to the ministerial and university political landscape. With a keen eye for both the theoretical and operational aspects of strategy work, Gitte ensures the realisation of the strategy and facilitates national and international cooperation.

On leading a technical community

Gitte Julin KudskAs CEO, my typical day is filled with a myriad of responsibilities, including numerous interactions with stakeholders ranging from employees and government officials to universities and collaborators. Additionally, serving on two boards further enriches my engagements within the community. Reflecting on achievements, I take pride in the strides made by DeiC under my leadership, particularly in strengthening our legal mandate and securing quantum funding, positioning us as a credible partner in delivering digital infrastructure to research and innovation.  

Having navigated various roles within technical communities, from administration to CEO, I have encountered both challenges and opportunities that are unique to my gender. In many instances, I have found myself as the only woman in the room, whether in ministerial meetings, boardrooms, or professional gatherings. The awareness of this disparity has been highlighted by experiences such as being asked about how I managed to become a director, a question highly unlikely to be posed to a man in the same context, and which underscores the ongoing need for gender inclusivity and awareness in our professional spaces.  As a leader, I am committed to fostering such inclusivity and progress and to empower women in similar roles within the technical community.”

It is hoped that this article, and the insights provided by the women in supporting roles that we have featured, contribute to the discussion around this topic, sparking the initiation of these vital conversations and questions that you may not have considered before. Continue to support your fellow female colleagues who work in a STEM environment such as the GÉANT community as best you can, and consider this… is there anything more you could be doing to promote a positive change?

Take a look at previous blog posts and articles for our previous #WomeninSTEM campaigns visit:

GÉANT CONNECT Magazine - CONNECT 45. Spotlighting the heroines behind the scenesThis article is featured on CONNECT 45, the latest issue of the GÉANT CONNECT Magazine!

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