10 out of 200: About finding your own path – Anna Vasilchenko uniquely combines journalism, computer science, and education

Meet Anna Vasilchenko, computer scientist and one of this year’s 10 out of 200 young researchers participating in the 7th Heidelberg Laureate Forum from September 22nd – 27th, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Anna Vasilchenko

What are your name and nationality?
My name is Anna Vasilchenko. I was born and raised in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, with a Ukrainian family name and a feeling of being Russian.

Where did you study and where are you currently based?
I did my undergraduate degree in Mass Media and Journalism at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, the capital city of my home country Kyrgyzstan. A few years later, after working in two universities on PR and administrative positions, I went on studying for a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Management at Newcastle University, UK. Subsequently, I stayed in Newcastle to do my Ph.D.

What is your current position?
I am currently a 4th year Ph.D. student at Open Lab, School of Computing, Newcastle University.

Why did you become a computer scientist?
My journey to Computer Science was neither straightforward nor planned. The journey began in 2004 when I was teaching basic computer skills to young children in remote deprived villages of Kyrgyzstan. It is then, moved by those children’s curiosity and their desire to get answers to thousands of questions, I started to realise that “traditional” education didn’t always work and that access to digital technologies could bring a significant positive change to the upbringing of those children. Since then, the idea of helping students to develop their potential with the support of technology inspired my work on numerous educational projects around the world, including Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Sweden, and the UK.
Ten years later, my journey took an unexpected turn towards computer science at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2014, which I attended as a journalist. During the forum, conversations with such legends as Vinton Cerf, Ivan Sutherland, Peter Naur and Manjul Bhargava, as well as many younger HLF participants, broadened my understanding of what computing and mathematics are about, and made me believe that I too am capable of doing Computer Science research, despite my “non-traditional” background in Mass Media and Education. These conversations were such an inspiration that I decided to take action and look for opportunities to do research on the intersection of computer science and education. Soon after I returned from HLF 2014, I started preparing to apply for a Ph.D. programme in computer science. It took me about half a year to formulate a research project that combined my passions for education and technology. Finally, in 2015 I won a scholarship to do a Ph.D. in Technology Enhanced Learning at Open Lab, Human-Computer Interaction research group, in Newcastle University.

What is the focus of your research? What is your research project?
My research focus is on technology-supported “learning-by-making” and I work towards developing a pedagogy that facilitates an advanced version of peer-learning. My pedagogical model is called the Self-Flipped Classroom, it is built on the synergy of Flipped-Classroom and learning-by-making pedagogies. The self- part of the name stands for materials that students produce as part of their own learning; and the -flip part of the name stand for reuse of these materials by instructors for teaching other students via delivering instructional video materials in advance of the class time (flipped classroom model). Here is one example of a video tutorial that a student created as part of her coursework for an undergraduate computer science module – a video tutorial on working with LED and Raspberry Pi created by Elizabeth Lovell for the “Ubiquitous computing” course. This tutorial was later effectively used in the “Physical Computing” course where students learned from scratch how to work with Raspberry Pi.

What are some of the fundamental challenges you have faced in your academic career?
My biggest challenge is my Imposter Syndrome and associated psychological barriers. While common, in my case it’s amplified by a few factors, such as being the first in my family to go to a university and study for a postgraduate degree and abroad, as well as changing my field of study and work a couple of times. I feel that having experience in multiple fields doesn’t make me an expert in any of them in particular. I’m not a journalist or a PR person anymore, I often feel an outsider among educators, and I still can’t believe I do my Ph.D. in computer science.

What do you feel are the greatest pressures facing scientists today?
One source of pressure, which intensifies as the world becomes ever more connected and flooded with information, is the public image and trust of science. It is worrying that such globally important problems like climate change, which have been studied by scientists for decades, are still routinely dismissed by the general public and even world leaders. Perhaps, the reason is that we, scientists, are not very good at talking to the public in a clear and coherent voice. The results of our research are often invisible to anyone but us, hidden behind paywalls of journals, and continuously misinterpreted in media.

What are you doing besides research?
I love cooking and baking! This has been my passionate hobby for many years. Sometimes when I’m tired, especially now while writing my Ph.D. thesis, I think about quitting my unexpected academic career and becoming a food blogger instead… Luckily this thought never sticks with me long enough, and events like HLF bring me back to the wonderful world of science. Besides cooking, I’d like to become a professional sommelier and a yoga teacher someday.

How did you hear about the HLF and why did you apply?
I first heard about HLF in 2014 when my husband, Andrey Mokhov, became one of 200 young scientists who received an invitation to participate. I got intrigued by the Forum and, since at that time I was a freelance journalist, I decided to come along to work on covering the event. You already know what happened next 🙂
Now that I am on my way to becoming a computer scientist myself, I am looking forward to attending HLF 2019 not as a journalist, but as a young researcher. Instead of being a side observer, as at HLF 2014, I hope to join discussions with Laureates and fellow participants, share my own research ideas, and, finally, apply the greatest minds’ role models to my future career path, with the hope and aspiration to make this world a better place for learning.

What do you expect from this meeting?
I expect to be inspired for something big again. HLF has changed my life in 2014, it might as well give my life another spin.

Which laureates present at the forum would you really like to talk to and what do you want to ask them?
First of all, I will be honoured to meet Vinton Cerf and Ivan Sutherland again to say thanks for their inspirational conversations 5 years ago. I would have also loved to talk to Peter Naur again, but he has sadly passed away in 2016. Among new Laureates, I would very much like to talk to Shwetak Patel. I know that he and his wife, Julie Kientz, both do research and teaching in the fields of Human-Computer Interaction and Ubiquitous Computing. The focus of my Ph.D. project is HCI education and my main case study is a Ubiquitous Computing course. So, I’d love to hear about Shwetak’s views on the challenges of HCI and Ubicomp education and what he thinks of my pedagogical approach.

Who were your most important mentors and what lessons did they pass on to you?
There were and are many wise and inspirational people in my life. The most recent example is Prof Åsa Cajander: we are working together on one of my case studies and she hosted my research visit to Uppsala University, Sweden. Åsa taught me to manage stress, thinking that sometimes good work is good enough, not everything has to be perfect when time is tight; and that efficient work-life balance is very important, it helps to protect from overwork and burnout. Åsa is a great role model for a successful female academic, as she became a full professor in just 8 years after completing her Ph.D. while also having 4 children and an equally successful husband.

In your research you are investigating student content creation as an educational method. What does that mean and what makes this method special in your opinion?
Students can learn so much better when they are engaged in the creation of teaching materials in a form of shareable multimedia artefacts, like the video tutorial above. This way, students not only learn the studied subject better, but they also master many transferable skills such as communication, collaboration, and media literacy. Today we also have an abundance of various tools and gadgets to support students in their content creation and facilitate teamwork, promoting creativity and increasing the level of motivation and engagement, which is all beneficial for their learning.
Learning through content creation is great, but what is even more exciting to me is that this content is reusable. The instructors who wish to make their teaching more interesting and more effective, but who are also pressed with time, do not need to create such materials themselves and instead can reuse the best examples from a previous cohort or ask students to share their creations with their peers, so that they can learn from each other and cover the studied subject much broader.

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Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist, science communicator, and moderator. Besides pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oldenburg, he works for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) and the Südwestrundfunk (SWR). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. LinkedIn

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