Partner Spotlight: Q&A with Lucia Dettori

Lucia Dettori is an Associate Dean and faculty member of the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University, as well as a co-founder of the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science (CAFÉCS). She grew up in Italy and earned a doctorate in Applied Mathematics from the University of Paris XI in France. Lucia considers herself to be a student and citizen of the world. 

Claire: International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911, and does not belong to any country, organization, or group, but to all groups everywhere. What significance does the day hold for you?

Lucia: I know that International Women’s Day has political and historical significance and connotation, but it’s celebrated differently in different countries. In Italy – where I grew up – it was a day of just celebrating women, and it was almost completely divorced from any political connotation. It’s a big deal in Italy and a day of festivity; strangers in the streets will give women bouquets of special mimosa flowers. So, I personally live it as a day of sisterhood and friendship with other women. I grew up in a household full of women where my dad and brother were definitely a minority. Plus, I had powerful role models at home, like my mom and my nonnas. The grandmas are reigning queens in Italy, so that camaraderie I enjoy with female friends and sisters was something to celebrate. 

Claire: What has been your greatest professional achievement?

Lucia: I’ve had a successful career and done solid research in different areas, but I think if I were to isolate what I was most proud of, it’s really the impact I hope I’ve had on students at many levels, and the commitment I have to reaching students from all walks of life. Teaching at DePaul, there is definitely joy that comes from the “ah-ha” moment – it’s definitely fulfilling. But I think the work that I do with CPS and the CS4All movement has been just as rewarding, and something I’m proud of as an achievement. My work is a little bit more removed from working directly with students, but just as satisfying in the sense of supporting systemic change and seeing the impact on a grand scale. Another thing is the number of teachers that we work with who now embrace their CS teacher identity, and the number of students that have discovered the fun of CS through them, and generally the systems that have been put in place for this to continue to live and improve over time. I’m a little concerned with saying this is something I’m proud of as my achievement, because it’s certainly not something that I achieved by myself. I take pride in the role I’ve played bringing people together to make this work possible.  

Claire: What about your experiences, from growing up in Italy, and then receiving your education in Europe, helped contribute to these achievements?

Lucia: I think my initial inspiration came from my upbringing with my parents. They caught the travel bug early on in their life, and they made sure they shared that with the four of us kids. Both my parents are physicians, and my dad was a researcher, so he would go speak at a conference. We would start wherever he had a conference, in whatever city in the world, and take a trip from there. Sometimes, it was a month-long trip. And so, from very early on, I was exposed to research and sharing results, while at the same time, getting fully immersed in other people’s culture and experiences. My parents were always trying to get us to closely interact with the locals and to eat the local food; if they ate bugs, we ate bugs, so to speak. That gave me an appreciation and a humble approach to how I interact with different cultures and different ways of life. If I think a little bit deeper, it opened my mind to the importance of diversity, and embracing different experiences and culture. So, that shapes my approach to teaching, and certainly the work I do with CAFÉCS. In recognizing the barriers that students are facing for learning something as fundamental as computing, I want to change the fact that your zip code, skin color, or gender could be a barrier to acquiring such fundamental skills. And then, Italians by definition, are problem-solvers. Things don’t always work smoothly over there; if you want to get anywhere, you’ve got to learn to find workarounds. So, I’m rarely scared by things not working. I know there will be a solution, and that certainly influenced the way I went through my personal and professional life.

Claire: At what point and why did you decide to pursue a career in STEM specifically?

Lucia: As I was going through high school, I was drawn to two main subjects. One was philosophy, and the other was math. When I look back, I see that the common factor was they are both very logic based. I gravitated towards math because of the fact that there was one solution. You’re either right or wrong. I think that that was very reassuring for me. Ironically, when I did my Ph.D. in math, I ended up doing a lot of numerical approximations, because the problems I was trying to solve were too complex to have one neat analytical solution. I had to break the problem down and approach the solution computationally so I ended up writing a lot of software, which was probably eventually what got me into computer science. I also credit my dad, because somehow, he saw that in me, and when I was in middle school, he bought me my first computer. I have a brother and two sisters, and for some reason, he thought I was the one that would have fun with a computer. He saw it right, I loved it.  I started messing with it and modifying games to make them more fun. So, I started programming a little bit, and that stayed with me, and eventually became my profession. It was fun. 

Claire: You’ve mentioned your dad being a role model. Do you have any other role models or people who’ve kind of inspired you along the way?

Lucia: When I think of my journey through life, there were mentors along the way – people who joined me on my journey for a little – but it would be tough to mention a single person. I like to surround myself with people that are smarter than me, better at things than me, and I take a little bit from all of them. I also want to mention my mom. She really pushed all of us to embark in new adventures and never give up on our personal and professional dreams. I think that stayed with me subconsciously in the beginning, and very consciously after a while. And as I think of my dedication and passion for the work we do with CS and CPS, I hear my mom’s words in that work. She would be on board with me doing that kind of work.

Claire: As a woman in STEM, do you think there are certain barriers you have had to overcome?

Lucia: Growing up and doing my undergraduate degree in Italy, that was not a problem at all. In my cohort, there were 80 women and eight men, so it was quite a surprise for me when I came to the U.S. to see the opposite. People would say, “girls don’t do math”, so there was obviously something wrong with society’s perception around girls or women. At the beginning of my career, I was surprised to be the only woman in the math department. I think I’ve had the occasional situation where I felt invisible in the room, but I have a very strong personality. I’m not shy about making my voice heard, so I don’t think it has been a challenge for me. Also, I was the baby in a large family, so I’ve had to advocate for myself. I was well-trained for that, and you get comfortable being uncomfortable. I am also lucky that I’ve always had bosses, including the current dean, that didn’t see me as a woman in STEM, they recognized my talent and valued my contributions so I felt very supported. But I do see, around me, that’s not always the case, which is why I’m so passionate about changing the face of computing around the world. 

Claire: Since you’ve started your career, or since you were in school, what are the most significant shifts you’ve seen to encourage women towards STEM identities?

Lucia: One significant change – and it’s sad that this is a significant change – is that more and more people recognize the problem. That’s the first step, recognizing the problem. Another important shift is that there is shared effort to fix that problem. It’s no longer just women talking about it, but both men and women recognizing that it’s everyone’s problem. I’m happy to see that companies have embraced the issue more. We’re still way off, certainly in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. One thing still not talked about enough and not solved is the issue of retaining women. There is a lot of energy about getting more people excited about maybe starting on a STEM pathway, whether it’s in school or as a job, and not enough on what we can do to ensure that women are progressing in these STEM careers. We need to think about the culture; once you are in, what is the culture? Is the pay the same?  I’m afraid it might take another generational change, but I’m optimistic. 

Claire: What makes you most excited about Chicago Public Schools’ graduation requirement to take computer science?

Lucia: The requirement is a critical step in reaching our shared goal of CS for all. Once it became a requirement, there was a shared commitment to take down barriers. I’m so profoundly convinced that CS and computational thinking are foundational skills that every student should have, not to become computer scientists, but to be productive members of society. If you think of the world around us, there is CS everywhere. I’m going back to the fact of it being cruel for people to not have access because of their zip code, color, or gender. I’m very excited that the Office of Computer Science, which has basically been in charge of this initiative, has been really committed to ensuring all courses counting towards this graduation requirement, especially the foundational courses, are grounded in equity and inquiry. This is what will make the graduation requirement impactful. We want students to have their curiosity tickled for how powerful this can be for solving problems in their communities. And this can only be achieved if the way you’re teaching has equity and inquiry at the very core. You have to do it right, and the Office of Computer Science is absolutely committed to that. 

Claire: Would you like to share anything you are proud of from your personal life?

Lucia: I know it’s cliché, but I have two kids who are now young adults, and I’m quite proud of who they have grown to be. My husband is Bengali, so my daughter says she is 50% Italian, 50% Bengali, and 100% American. Making sure they embraced this, and seeing them become caring, curious, outgoing people with a strong moral compass, is something I am personally proud of. And, on a more personal note, I’ve lived in many places and I am happy about the friendships I have maintained over the years. Those experiences shape who I am. People say you uproot yourself every time you’re moving somewhere else, but I really think of it as widening the terrain where my roots are. I feel like the wider the root bed, the more stable the tree. I am thankful for the people had generously embraced me, even if I was foreign in a way, and opened their houses, their hearts, their minds to me. And so, I took a little bit from everyone that I encountered. 

Claire: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Lucia: Something I want to emphasize is the importance of working collaboratively. The impact you can have as a single person is just infinitesimal compared to the impact you can have if you commit to doing it collaboratively. We started this conversation talking about International Women’s Day and my thoughts about sisterhood and the role of mentoring and role models. I’m hoping that everybody who reads this blog commits to mentoring at least one person. I want people to share a portion of their journey with someone else and help to push them along as a support system. So, pick up the phone and reach out to at least one person. The world will be better because of it.