Take Two: Dr Katina Michael & Sarah Fusco

In Summer 2006/0 7, Dr Katina Michael, a senior lecturer in the School of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong, and her undergraduate student, Sarah Fusco compiled a paper in just 10 weeks on the ethical implications of location-based services for humancentric tracking and monitoring in Summer2006/07. This paper was subsequently published in a high-profile European journal. But their greatest achievement was their newfound friendship...

Katina on Sarah & her career

Dr Katina Michael was ecstatic when she discovered Sarah Fusco had applied for a research scholarship she was offering for the 2006/07 summer. Katina had already met Sarah by chance a couple of months earlier while filling in for a colleague's class.

Katina Michael

Katina Michael

That day, some of the students were presenting for their assessments and I had the opportunity to mark Sarah's seminar," she recalls. "It was probably the best seminar I had ever seen in an undergraduate degree." Still impressed with the young lady's efforts the next day, Katina sent Sarah an email to congratulate her on a class‑topping mark

Katina was confident from the beginning that Sarah would fit the mold as an enthusiastic scholarship recipient and diligent research assistant. And she was right. After just 10 weeks of collaboration, the research duo completed a 60-page paper that was recently published in a high impact, European computer science journal.

"It's not very often you'll find an undergraduate student who has had their work published in a major European journal," says Katina. "If I can hold onto her I will -- I would really love to supervise her if she pursues a PhD. And after uni as well -- I consider her as a friend."

Katina says it's students like Sarah who have really unleashed and solidified her passion for teaching. "When the phone rings, it's not disgruntled clients or customers, but students who are cooperative, modest and humble, and willing to learn. It's not about the money, it's about the people."

But Katina never contemplated a career in teaching when studying her Bachelor of Information Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney. From the outset, she was so determined to make her mark in the industry and defy doubts from family and peers that as a married woman, she would struggle to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated field.

"Because I was married at 18, my family immediately thought I would have 10 kids straight away," the now mother-of-two laughs. "But I ignored all those comments. There is room for children and a husband in your career if you’re a woman. In fact, they’re my biggest inspiration."

This attitude has helped Katina achieve as a dynamic woman employed in computer science. She was employed full-time before the age of 21 with multinational communications corporation, Nortel Networks. At this young age, Katina also already had two other professional work placements under her belt.

Despite commencing her graduate position at Nortel Networks in 1995 as an engineer, Katina’s versatility and initiative saw her create her own position as the company’s market and network analyst for the Asia-Pacific region.

During her time with Nortel, Katina quickly became used to walking into board rooms packed with over 50 males and the occasional female marketing staff. But she will never forget one of her first major board meetings which was probably the most intimidating experience of her career.

"I was only 22 and I literally walked into a room of 65 males who all worked for Nortel," she recalls. "They were all wearing suits and I rocked up about 10 minutes late in my jeans and a casual blouse. When I opened the door, I had 65 sets of eyes of men in their 40s, 50s and 60s staring at me and they were not happy."

Katina says since joining the University of Wollongong as a lecturer in 2002, she has observed a growing gender balance in the computer science subjects she teaches. "But there have been classes that I have taught in which there were only male students," she says.

Katina believes that females are a valuable asset in the computer science industry. "As a director at Nortel Networks once said, women are incredibly talented multi-taskers and lateral thinkers. He said the industry should be a big thing for working mothers and females generally."

Sarah on Katina & her studies

Sarah Fusco can still remember Dr Katina Michael's reply to her application for a summer scholarship in 2006. "She was so excited that I had chosen her topic to pursue over summer and seemed to have seen potential in me which I felt I did not have."

Sarah says it is this confidence in her students that makes Katina such a charismatic teacher. "Katina has a sincere vested interest in ensuring her students not only pass, but also that they learn," she says. "She comes at her position from a personal perspective, with an objective more far reaching than the outcomes of any syllabus." Sarah experienced this for herself over summer 2006/07 when Katina, as her research partner, helped her not only build her knowledge in the world of IT, but also further develop confidence in herself and her work.

"Over the summer Katina would discuss the topics with me as though we had equal knowledge of the area, which was not, and still is not the case. Katina was the ever patient supervisor, one hundred percent confident in me getting the work done with what seemed to be complete faith in my ability to do the work -- something I, myself barely had."

Sarah was especially amazed at Katina's continued patience, even when she lost the only copy of an important interview for their paper which was conducted in London.

"I was transcribing the interview conducted by Katina and had in my possession the one tape which the interview was on. However, I was distracted by talking to a friend in the library and I left it there."

Sarah contacted Katina the next day hoping there was a back-up copy. There wasn't. In the end the tape was found, but Sarah says it was Katina’s calm and forward-looking attitude that really helped them overcome the hiccup so smoothly.

"The email I got back from Katina was very nice. She comforted me and told me not to feel bad."

In the end, co-authoring an internationally published article with Katina has been one of the most rewarding learning curves of Sarah’s undergraduate double degree in Information and Communication Technology and Law.

"I initially wanted to go in the area of physics or mathematics however decided to study information and communication technology," she says. "I was warned by my father, an engineer, at the time that it would be hard to compete in the IT industry, especially because of all the males who had a lot of experience with computer sciences."

But like Katina, Sarah was adamant that she was capable of competing in a traditionally male dominated course. And she sees her studies in law as a wise decision as “the intersection of the two degrees is offering new and exciting areas of study.”

Sarah has been the only female in some of her IT classes, however, she perceives this as an opportunity rather than setback. “Especially in the last two years of my degree, I was able to see myself on an equal footing with my male classmates, and not only offer help to them, but also ask for help from them.” It’s all about perception and attitude to learning, she says.

While Sarah is away on student exchange in Antwerp, Belgium for the Autumn 2008 semester, she is eager to complete her Honours thesis on the social-ethical implications of humancentric monitoring and tracking next Spring. She says she couldn’t have chosen a better supervisor than Katina.

"At first Katina was only my teacher, then she became my supervisor, and then my friend," she says. "I feel so lucky to have fallen in her path and to have chosen her topic for my summer research project. Next semester I will complete my Honours project with her, and after that, we’ll see whether she can still tolerate me."

This article is written by Amanda Madruga, Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies -  Bachelor of Laws student at the University of Wollongong who interviewed Katina and Sarah.

Citation: Amanda K. Madruga, "Take Two: Dr Katina Michael and Sarah Fusco", WISENET, Women in Science Enquiry Network Vol. 77 (2008), Available at: http://works.bepress.com/kmichael/69/