Jessica Cauchard

Jessica Cauchard: Girl Geek, VR and human-computer interaction

As well as doing a full-time PhD, learning Kung Fu and scuba diving, Jessica Cauchard recently delivered the IET's Bristol Local Network lecture on human-computer interaction and virtual reality. She has also found time to establish a Bristol branch of the worldwide Girl Geek Dinners network.

Jessica Cauchard, 27, comes from Pau in France and is currently undertaking a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction at the Bristol Interaction and Graphics group in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol. Prior to that she worked as a research assistant at Think Lab, University of Salford and was a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) research associate with Tribal Group in Sheffield.

Tell us about your background?

My dad is a retired specialist army helicopter engineer and I used to visit him when he was on duty at weekends, so I was always in an engineering environment. I even remember thinking that Santa Claus arrives by helicopter since I had seen him at my dad’s regiment Christmas party.

From a young age I had the opportunity to take on an extra technical course at school, which I completed at junior high. At 17, under the French baccalauréat, you choose, say, science or literacy, and study a set of subjects. I chose science and have the equivalent to A-levels in mathematics, physics, mechanics, electronics and general studies. I was always into technology and engineering so did a Bachelor of Engineering at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, where I specialised in robotics. I somehow, by luck, got into virtual reality when I did my MSc in Advanced Computer Science at the University of Sheffield. One flowed naturally into the other and I then discovered human-computer interaction (HCI), which I found to be a very interesting topic. 

What is your PhD focusing on?

A lot of computer systems have been created for and by scientists so the idea of HCI is to explore how people can interact in more intuitive ways with such devices: whether for example it is better to use touch, voice, shadow or other techniques.

PhDs are always very focused and mine is looking specifically at mobile technologies/devices that have more than one screen. For example, you now have mobile devices that have little projectors inside which can be used to show a movie or show some photos to your family. The idea is that if you are giving a talk somewhere, you don't need to take a projector with you anymore because you can carry everything on your mobile phone. It is interesting technology but it is also very difficult because you have to manage this small screen next to you and then this bigger interaction space.

So I'm looking at how people can manage the interaction between the two screens, whether they want to display the same type of information, or how they can switch data across screens and also how they can change the orientation of the projection space itself.

So far, how have you found being a woman in such a male dominated field?

I speak to lots of women and everyone has a different experience but it can be a little bit lonely. I think it's harder in France as I believe we are behind the UK in terms of integrating women in science and technology positions.

Even so it can still be isolating here. Women often have different interests from men so you have the scientific part in common but don't have as many people to talk to about other things.

Was this one of the reasons you decided to start Girl Geek Dinners in Bristol?

Yes. I had been to a lot of technical events where you end up being one of only a few women. At one in particular I was the only woman out of around 200 or more people. I remember looking at some people with long hair thinking they have to be a woman but weren't! A few months later, I was in London and someone told me about Girl Geek Dinners (GGD) so I looked into it and decided to start a Bristol version. The idea is that at each dinner we have a female speaker who acts as a role model and talks about a technical topic or her experience as a woman in her field – or a mix of both. There is always a technical aspect – for instance, the person may talk about their research and its outcomes – as it is nice to learn about something new. We also have food and drinks, of course, and it's very informal.

Have you had a good response to events?

It's worked really well so far. Over 70 people came to the first one and on average 40-50 attend the events. They range from students to retired women who worked in a technical sector. It's great to get women of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities. I thought we might have to do some ice-breaker events but everyone talks to each other and the whole thing just seems to work. Each woman can invite one man, which means there would be a 50:50 ratio in the maximum case, but there are always more women. I think it is good for men to find out what it is like to be one of the few but it also shows them what clever technical women there are out there.

What are your career plans/ambitions after your PhD?

I have a lot of ideas of things I would like to do! I would rather work in industry where I could see the full product life cycle from conception to commercialisation. I would love to work for the aerospace industry or any other high-tech environment where I could keep working with state-of-the art technologies. I hope to evolve towards a more managerial position in time even though I wish to keep my technical outlook.

What advice do you have for other women who want a highly technical career?

First of all, I would advise them to study as much as possible. A Master’s degree or PhD grants women a higher status, which definitely makes life easier. Additionally, they should keep motivated and work towards whatever they want to achieve no matter if people around them say that it is not going to be possible or that this isn’t a career for a woman. Finally, they should network with other women in their field and remember that they are not alone in such situation.

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