By: Mira Costello
If you are a computer science major at IU South Bend, your leaders are women from the ground up. All-IU President Pamela Whitten leads your system, Chancellor Susan Elrod leads your campus, Dean Brenda Philipps leads your college, and your program – computer and information sciences – is chaired by Dr. Dana Vrajitoru.
Dr. Vrajitoru was born and raised in Romania, where she studied computer science as an undergraduate until accepting a scholarship that moved her to Switzerland. There, at the University of Neuchatel, she earned her Ph.D. in computer science. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship, she came to IU South Bend.
“I didn’t know much about computer science before I went to college, but it turned out to be a good fit for me,” she said. “Back then in Romania, the situation was a little bit different from here. Computers weren’t so available as they are now, and few people had one at home – it was more of a company thing. Also, not many schools did have them, so that’s why it wasn’t taught in schools.”
Dr. Vrajitoru said she decided to pursue computer science because she wanted to put her math skills to use, but didn’t necessarily want to become a math teacher.
“There were at least as many girls interested in math as there were boys when I was in school,” she said. “When I got into university, in Romania, we were pretty much exactly half and half in computer science. In math, it was actually female dominated.”
She explained that although math and computer science were well diversified between men and women, the polytechnic institute in her town – which had programs for automatics and engineering – was heavily male-dominated.
“Maybe that’s why there were more women in math, because the science oriented guys would be going to the polytechnic,” Dr. Vrajitoru said.
However, when she moved to Switzerland, the situation was different.
“When I came to Switzerland, I found that to my surprise, there were very few women in the same class as me,” she said. “Initially there were three of us to a class of 25, and then the other two graduated, and I found myself alone in the class. That was not a pleasant experience. I was also an international student, and that can be more isolating.”
At IU South Bend, Dr. Vrajitoru said, the computer science department is home to two women faculty and eight men faculty.
“Unfortunately, in computer science, we still have too few women,” she said. “Maybe not as bad as it was in Switzerland for me, but it’s not close to half – maybe a quarter or a third [of the students] in good cases. I’ve had classes where there were maybe just one or two female students.”
According to the Scientific American, only 20 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees go to women. While Dr. Vrajitoru described the young women she teaches as driven and determined, she said the primary difficulty is attracting women to the field.
“Maybe the culture has them thinking that sciences are more for guys than for girls. Maybe they don’t see as many examples of women in STEM, and that doesn’t encourage them to think that this is something they should pursue themselves,” she said. “There’s been progress since I started, so I think that it shouldn’t be as difficult for them as it was for me when I was an undergraduate.”
As a gamer herself, Dr. Vrajitoru drew a comparison between computer science and gaming.
“If I’m in an online game, I don’t necessarily point out that I’m a woman. I don’t talk about it, or even have a male avatar in the game, because I don’t want people to make a big deal out of that,” she said. “There are some preconceptions, like for example, that girls aren’t gamers. I think a lot of that is actually wrong. There are more female gamers than we think, and I think society is shifting towards accepting women as more natural in these fields. It may take a while for it to translate into more women going to study this.”
At the end of the day, Dr. Vrajitoru said, young women in STEM should rest assured that their talent and tenacity will serve them well.
“Don’t get discouraged, because what you actually do is what matters,” she said, “and people will appreciate that, no matter what else might be true about you.”