Professor Sylvia Ilieva, PhD, founder and manager of GATE, on the ideas and ambitions of Eastern Europe's only Big Data and AI research institute
For years, Bulgaria has been a leader in female inclusion and participation in the "male" world of informatics and digital technologies. Professor Sylvia Ilieva, PhD, is one of the trailblazers. She has decades of experience and is one of the scientists who, in 2019, created GATE, a Sofia-based research institute for Big Data and AI at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski."
Browsing through the GATE's website is like travel to the near and better future. The organisation's team is busy creating and developing ideas in fields like data visualisation, analysis and management, and engineering of Big Data-based systems, and exploring their possible application in ways that will make everyday life healthier and safer, more socially responsible, open and sustainable. The researchers' focus is on creative and responsible cooperation with both the businesses and the public institutions. Professor Ilieva shares more.
How did your career lead you to head the only Big Data and AI research institute in Eastern Europe?
My career started at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in the late 1980s. I initially began with research and science, and at a later stage I also started teaching. In 2001, I joined Sofia University as an associate professor, and in 2012 I became a professor at its Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics. For 7 years I chaired the Software Technologies department. My greatest satisfaction was to celebrate the department's 10th anniversary with our students, alumni and partners. Over 300 guests attended and shared their gratitude for the successful careers the department helped them to launch. Under my leadership we developed the BSc and MSc Software Engineering curriculum. I successfully participated in over 20 European projects.
My scientific interests are in integrated software platforms, data management, software processes and software engineering for AI.
For me, it is important that my family shares my interests. In this respect I have always enjoyed a truly supportive environment. My husband manages a prosperous software company, and my daughter enjoys a successful career in Google, California. Naturally, they have always encouraged me in my projects.
Participation in international projects helped me to establish a wide network of partnerships with people and institutions, such as Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and Big Data Value Association, a wide circle of industrial partners in the field of Big Data and AI, and others.
Thus, my experience and expertise found their natural continuation in the creation of GATE – the first institute for applied research and innovation in the field of Big Data and AI in Eastern Europe, at Sofia University.
Are women still an exotic in scientific research and what advantages do they have as professionals?
By no means they are exotic. Modern science is first and foremost a team effort, and female presence is crucial for building a well-balanced team. Women have significant advantages that make them an integral part in the process of achieving both interpersonal harmony and quality scientific results. They are methodical, accurate and consistent, they are very responsible and have an inborn sense for details, which is crucial in scientific research.
At the moment GATE is a good illustration of this. Though we have never set it as a specific goal, in a very natural way we have reached a point at which women make 40% of our team. They grow as professionals and scientists in a field traditionally considered "male." Here I should note that the project proposal for the establishment of GATE was prepared with exclusively female participation, from the Bulgarian part.
Which are the areas where GATE concentrates its work on AI development?
From an applied point of view we are focused on digital health, future cities, intelligent government and smart industry. AI is currently the leading trend in each of these application areas. For us, technology has never been the goal but just a means that helps us to improve people's lives.
For example, in the future cities application area we are working on creating a digital twin of Sofia. We've started with building a 3D semantic model of Lozenets District. The 3D model provides a base for implementation of specific use cases.
In the field of urban planning, we explore how the construction of new buildings affects the environment. Combined with computational fluid dynamics (CFD), the 3D model allows simulations of wind and air flow. Therefore, we have defined a use case that focuses on the air quality and, in particular, on simulating distribution of air pollutants depending on wind direction and speed, and buildings' geometry.
How does an ordinary workday look for you and what challenges do you face?
My challenges are counted by the dozens and each of them asks for a lot of concentration and dedication, and for flexible time and resource management. On the one hand, we should not forget that we are working during a pandemic, which inevitably slows down a lot of processes. We are almost 100% digital, but many organisations we communicate with are not, and this requires face-to-face meetings as well. On the other hand, we are recruiting researchers, we are constructing a new building for GATE's needs, we make scientific experiments, we publish articles, prepare events and widen our network of partnerships... I cannot say that it is easy, but gradually we managed to establish a creative and stimulating environment with enthusiastic and motivated young people. At the end of the day, this is what is crucial for our long-term success. So, I hope that we will sustain our initial momentum.
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