As a child growing up in Greece, encouraged by her father, Lydia Kavraki dreamed of starships, planes, helicopters and other navigation equipment. As soon as she got her hands on a computer, she became hooked on the idea of programming as a way to unlock these fascinating and complex machines.
Since those early days, Lydia has become a serious force to be reckoned with in the world of computer science and engineering.
“I have followed the evolution of the technology field for the past 25 years,” she says. “We went from basic email to social networks; from inventories to data science; and from toy robots to self-driving cars. I love the change, the rate of change, the variety of applications and the opportunity we have to better the lives of many people on this planet through the responsible use of technology.”
What sets Lydia truly apart is her passion and dedication to expanding these opportunities to women. As the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science and Bioengineering at Rice University, Lydia has spent her career engaging young women researchers and scientists by making them an integral part of her own research — solving problems, developing theories and applying results to real-life issues.
Tangible applications of research is what Lydia believes is one of the keys to attracting women into the field of computer science.
“Technology without a purpose or that is disconnected from the real world can be uninspiring to women,” Lydia explains. “Presenting young women researchers and scientists with challenges that connect to the real world, where different skills are required and deeply valued by all participants, has been a guiding principle for me.”
Lydia’s students are exposed to research opportunities in robotics as well as bioinformatics — two diverse fields that have very tangible opportunities beyond research. Currently, Lydia and her team are immersed in research behind motion planning, a fundamental problem in robotics.
Her work is in part inspired by the researchers she observed early in her career who studied the shape and function of proteins, which Lydia calls the “machines of our bodies.” Today, she and her team are deeply interested in studying the algorithmic relationships between robotics and structural bioinformatics — and how to use computer science to make strides in both these fields.
At Rice University, Lydia has served as the academic advisor of the Undergraduate Women in Computer Science Club since 2002. During her tenure at Rice, she’s seen the proportion of women undergraduates in the Computer Science department grow from 5 percent to 37 percent.
Part of her strategy for changing the ratio of women in computer science is to start engaging students at a young age — even younger than the undergraduate level. She’s involved with the Robotics Club at the school, which attracts K-12 students. She’s also committed to supporting women as they pursue advanced degrees as well.
“It is very important to continue to train women who will be leaders in academia or industry,” she explains. Lydia also spends time mentoring junior female faculty members.
“I try to the best of my abilities to participate in university committees and projects as well as professional, national and international organizations to help voice the challenges, interests, concerns and aspiration of my women colleagues.”
With a holistic, practical approach to the issues surrounding women in tech, it is not surprising that Lydia is a strong role model for so many young women. She attributes her success to the support she had as a young child, when she was still dreaming of starships.
“Nobody in my immediate environment ever hinted that I was limited in my career choices because I was a woman,” Lydia says. Today, she works hard to provide all the women she encounters in her career with the same support that helped propel her to where she is today.
“My advice would be to strive to become a whole, well-balanced person and advance science and technology together with personal growth,” she says. “But in my opinion, women also need to consciously develop skills that will help them deal with challenges and permit them to dream.”