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Science in Switzerland: the women driving change

‘I try to show the other side of robotics, the good side’

Margarita Chli, 37, is professor and head of the Vision for Robotics Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich. Geri_born

Margarita Chli is one of the few women who have succeeded in the field of robotics in Switzerland. She advocates for more role models teaching the subject and she also wants to show how robots can be beneficial for humans.

This content was published on November 1, 2021 - 09:00

Margarita Chli’s family inspired her to pursue a degree in computer engineering, but it was during her PhD in the UK that she became interested in robotic vision, which allows robots to “see” the world around them and process visual data through sensors, software and cameras. She now heads the Vision for Robotics Lab at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. 

The 37-year-old professor has not only found the ideal conditions for robotics research and innovation in Switzerland – thanks to generous funding and numerous experts – but also a second home, where the green hills and the lakes and rivers that fill up with bathers in summer remind her of her home island, Cyprus.  

Chli is determined to get more women into robotics, a field which she believes will improve the quality of human life, be it through mobile robots in search and rescue missions or in personalised healthcare. SWI swissinfo.ch asked her about the challenges of studying and working in robotics and how researchers – women and men alike – could pave the way in Switzerland.

Women in science

Switzerland has fewer female researchers than other European countries. The proportion of female professors stands at 23% and is even lower in natural and technical sciences.

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have further limited the scientific work of women: Swiss researchers recently analysedExternal link thousands of studies published between January 1, 2018 and May 31, 2021 and noticed that during the first wave of the pandemic women were listed less often as leading authors than in previous years. According to the authors of this research, one possible explanation was that female researchers struggled to reconcile work and family during the lockdowns and therefore published less articles than their male counterparts.      

What can be done to reduce the gender gap and make science more inclusive? In its new series “Women in Science”, SWI swissinfo.ch is portraying successful female scientists, to inspire and encourage other women to enter the field.

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SWI swissinfo.ch: Do you see more female students in robotics classes than you did a decade ago?

Margarita Chli: Unfortunately not. It’s a sad story. When I first came to Switzerland, there were maybe two girls out of a total of fifty students. It’s been ten years since my PhD and I can’t say I’ve seen much change in the female presence in classrooms. Perhaps this has to do with my path and the move from the UK to Switzerland. If I’m honest, the situation in Switzerland is worse than in the UK in this respect. 

I work in the mechanical engineering department, which traditionally doesn’t attract many girls, but we hear all the time that the sector needs more women and that we need to do everything to get more female graduates. It’s clear we need to do more to make our courses more attractive to girls. We are trying to figure out how to do that, but it takes a lot of patience because the fruits of what we sow today will only be seen in twenty years’ time. 

SWI: When you chose this career, did you know it would be an obstacle course?

M.C.: I come from a family where gender never mattered in studies and work. So it was a real shock when I realised that there were only three girls out of a hundred students in my computer science course. That’s when I started thinking that maybe something was wrong. 

SWI: How could women be encouraged to enrol in science courses?

M.C.: I think a good strategy is to increase the number of female professors in order to create role models. We need to encourage girls in every possible way, putting more women in power, promoting discussion and creating more opportunities for confrontation. In this way, perhaps we will succeed in moving, inch by inch, this great rock that history has placed in the path of many women.

SWI: Have you ever felt discriminated against?

M.C: Of course, who has never felt discriminated against? I am not a heroine, everyone has their own stories and barriers to break down. You can be discriminated against because of religion, because of where you come from, because of the colour of your skin. You have to be able to let everything slide past and move towards your goal. 

To be successful, it is important to know how to listen to yourself. Perhaps men know how to do that better. My advice is: don’t listen to the chatter that undermines your path. And if you think you are doing the right thing, don’t stop, keep working towards your goal. If someone thinks you are where you are because you are a woman, don’t care about it. Sooner or later you will prove these people wrong. The same advice also applies to men. We have to get rid of gender stereotypes.     

SWI: Do you feel inspired by what you do?

M.C.: Absolutely. I think I have one of the most beautiful jobs in the world. I work with motivated people, brilliant minds who want to make an impact on society. But it’s the daily work with students and the satisfaction of seeing them progress on their journey that fulfils me the most. 

The idea of contributing even slightly to improving the quality of life and changing the common view of robotics is a very important driver in my work. 

Robots are still negatively associated with surveillance and the military. People are afraid of automation and what it can do. It's true that it can cause a lot of damage. But instead of just focusing on that aspect, you should look at all the benefits it can bring. 

SWI: How do you raise awareness of the benefits of robotics?

M.C.: Every time I give a lecture, I try to show the other side of robotics, the good side. I talk about the contribution we are trying to make in areas such as search and rescue in the event of alpine avalanches or earthquakes, or the monitoring of anomalies in factories. 

Last summer, whole areas of Greece suffered from fires. A friend of mine asked me if we could do something with drones to monitor these areas. Unfortunately, we are still so far behind in research to be able to do that. But this shows how much robotics could do to improve our lives.

SWI: Switzerland decided to break off discussions with the European Union on the framework agreement, which means that the country will not be associated with key research programmes such as Horizon Europe. Does this affect your work?

M.C.: Yes, of course, it’s a heavy blow for Swiss research. In the past I have worked on European projects while there were sanctions in place against Switzerland. Despite this, Swiss institutions had done everything they could to make life easier for us researchers.

Living in a rich country like Switzerland, where the government funds research, helps to heal the wound. But it will be important to continue to collaborate with European institutions, there is a lot to gain. And as a wealthy country, Switzerland has the responsibility and the duty not only to take but also to give. 

SWI: What contribution would you like to make to robotics?

M.C.: Someone once made me reflect on the fact that my career path was not accessible to women 20 years ago. This is a big responsibility, but also a very exciting opportunity. My dream is to become a good role model and inspiration, someone who attracts both young men and women to the world of science because: “I would like to become like her”. I would like to show everyone what robotics can do for our society and add my contribution to make it better. But who, after all, dreams of anything different?

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