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You are here:   New College Village »  Media & Events »  News »  Research »  Thamali Lekamge: A Woman's Experience In Academia

Thamali Lekamge: A Woman's Experience in Academia

February 14, 2017
Posted by: Emma Nelson

Thamali Lekamge is a woman from Sri Lanka, and an NCV resident who has recently completed her Computer Engineering PhD at UNSW. Historically, there have been challenges involved with being a woman in academia. Does gender still have an impact on a woman’s university experience today? We asked Thamali a few questions to hear her perspective on the topic.

What’s it like being a woman in academia?

Something that I found out early on was that if I wanted to be an academic in the computer field, there aren't many women around. But I think that situation changed a bit after I came to UNSW. Although men still outnumbered women, the proportion of women to men was reduced.  Also I had heard that if I wanted to be in academia, I would have to work harder than men in the field. I'm not sure whether this is true for me though. All the guys in my research group worked as hard as any of us did. Saying that this might not be the case when you advance further in your career.

Although while tutoring in university I've never been treated differently because I am a woman, I have had one awkward encounter when I was teaching outside university. I was teaching a data science course and most of the students in the class were older male students. There was one student who always seemed to question me over my co-instructor who was a male. I liked the challenge because that made me prepare for the course much harder and find lot more extra information which also helped me gain more knowledge but there were sometimes that I felt that I had to defend what I was teaching.

Is it hard to get support to study at this level?

While doing an undergrad degree we usually get all we need to know from the lecturers or from the text books that they recommend. When doing a research degree this is not the case. Usually we get a slight idea of the area that we should consider from the supervisor and it's up to us to figure out what techniques to use and which research papers to read. Although supervisors are there to guide us, I found that it's much more challenging than doing a coursework degree and you have to put in much more effort to find the resources that are required. Moreover, if there are post docs or senior students in the research group they tend to help the new students if they ask. So it's not easy to get the support but not much harder if you put in some effort. 

How has being at NCV helped you “survive” your PhD?

One of the first friends I met in NCV was Sameera who was also starting her PhD on the same year. After that, I met many more PhD students who were living in NCV. It helped a lot to have a bunch of friends who were in the same situation and who I could bounce my ideas off. Also, the senior students who were in the building were always helpful. They always shared their experiences. So there was always somebody I could talk to when I was losing my head.

When I first had my annual review I got to practice my presentation at one of the monthly NCV postgrad seminars, which helped me to boost my confidence and get some ideas about the type of questions that I might get. Also there were couple of us who got together before each other’s annual reviews and had practice runs in front of each other almost every year. These activities helped a lot. We also went out for dinner or at least just dessert when each of us got through our reviews or got a paper accepted for publication as a reward. Which was fun and cheered us up at the same time and also provided that small break that we needed after a hectic week/month.

I love hiking and that's my way of blowing off steam. I met a bunch of friends who liked hiking in NCV and I've done a lot of walks with them. Specially last 2 years when I was a SR, I had the opportunity to organize more hikes, which was super fun and I got to explore lot more walks than I would have if I was living on my own.

What is the subject of your PhD?

Computer Engineering - Mainly in the areas of computer vision and machine learning

Do you have any advice for women aspiring to complete their PhD at UNSW?

One of my professors back home once told me to "be valued for your expertise, not your gender". I think that was a great advice.  I guess it doesn't matter whether you're a woman or man if you work hard (but also save some time to enjoy) you can get through it.


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