They exist in both science and humanities subjects: Science Olympiads in which high school students and other pupils in the same age achieve top performances at national or international level. Such an Olympiad has recently been launched especially for young women with an interest in computer science. The brain behind this idea: Glarus mathematics student Stefanie Zbinden.
The date has already been set, as has the location: the European Girl's Olympiad in Informatics (EGOI for short) will take place in Antalya, Turkey, from 26 June to 2 July 2022. Behind this name is a programming competition especially for female high school students who have previously qualified in their home country to take part in the international competition. Four participants from each country will travel to Turkey to solve tasks with algorithms they have developed themselves in exams lasting several hours. At the end, gold, silver and bronze medals await the top finishers, as is customary at the Olympic Games.
Science Olympiads have a sixty-year tradition. Starting in 1959 with mathematics, today the competitions exist in biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, robotics and computer science, but also in economics, geography, linguistics and philosophy. The European Olympiad in Informatics for Young Women is an addition since 2021. The premiere was in Zurich. 160 female participants from 43 countries had qualified for the computer science competition, which was held virtually due to the pandemic. The event was organised by a group of students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ). The brains behind the core team was mathematics student Stefanie Zbinden.
Qualification for Antalya is already in full swing in various countries. In Switzerland, the selection of the four participants will take place within the framework of the national Swiss Informatics Olympiad. This was launched in September 2021. By the spring of 2022, three qualification rounds will have been held to select the most clever students among the participants. Those who prevail in the third round will take part in the International Olympiad in Informatics in Indonesia in August 2022. For the four young women who finish best in the second qualifying round, an additional chance beckons: they will travel to the EGOI in Antalya - regardless of their success in the third round. The Olympiad for Women is therefore not in competition with the gender-mixed International Olympiad for Informatics. Rather, it is an additional offer for female programming talents.
Solving puzzles herself
Who is this woman who spent the last three months of her mathematics studies at ETHZ organising an international programming competition exclusively for women? We reach Stefanie Zbinden via video conference in Edinburgh. She has been working there since this autumn as a doctoral student at Heriot-Watt University, a university founded in 1821 with 11,000 students, the first technical university in the world. It is no coincidence that Stefanie Zbinden moved from Zurich to the Scottish capital: mathematician Alessandro Sisto has been teaching there since mid-2020. Zbinden wrote her Bachelor's and Master's thesis with him at ETHZ. The 23-year-old plans to do her doctorate under him in the next few years.
Alessandro Sisto is an expert in the mathematical field that excites Stefanie Zinden and is represented by a strong group of researchers at Heriot-Watts University: geometric group theory. This is a discipline that brings together different mathematical subfields such as algebra, geometry, graph theory and topology. "While group theory deals with algebraic objects, geometric group theory transforms algebraic objects into geometric objects in order to investigate their properties in this way," says Stefanie Zbinden. She herself is particularly concerned with hyperbolic properties of objects, where triangles have inwardly curved sides.
Even though Stefanie was a good maths student when she went to high school in Glarus, she did not discover her passion for this subject at school. "What you learn at school is not really mathematics," says Stefanie Zbinden, "at school you just apply things that others have told you. I'm interested in solving puzzles myself. School didn't really motivate me to study mathematics.
The advantages of women-only competitions
That she chose this subject in the end was due to the Science Olympiads. At the age of 14, the daughter of a social worker and a painter took part in such a competition for the first time, then again and again for another three years. During that time, she made it to the International Mathematics Olympiad three times and the International Computer Science Olympiad once. She brought home plenty of medals from the national and international competitions: 2 x gold, 7 x silver, 2 x bronze.
The personal experience not only motivated her to study mathematics at ETHZ, but also strengthened her belief that separate science competitions for women make sense. "When I took part in the Mathematics Olympiad for Young Women, the climate was completely different than before in the mixed competition. I took home new, positive experiences from there," Stefanie Zbinden says. She sees several advantages in women-only competitions: Participants don't feel as exposed as in male-dominated competitions like the International Olympiad in Informatics with a vanishingly small proportion of women. Women's competitions also made it easier to make friends and find female role models.
Plugging the 'leaky pipeline'
Even as a doctoral student, Zbinden sits on the organising committee of the next EGOI. This time, however, she is leaving the main part of the organisational work to others. For her, the focus is now on her doctoral thesis, having made it to Scotland with her boyfriend, equipped with visas due to Brexit. In the group researching geometric group theory, Stefanie Zbinden has made a good start in the first few weeks. The offices are designed in such a way that a lively exchange about mathematical problems is possible. Together with Stefanie Zbinden, a second femal scientist has started her doctoral studies. She can exchange ideas with her at eye level. Four of the ten researchers in the group are women. "I was positively surprised by the number," says Zbinden.
Where will the doctoral programme take her one day? It is still a little early to answer this question so soon after starting in Edinburgh. At the moment, Zbinden has an academic career in mind; she wants to become a mathematics professor. If she achieves this goal in the future, it would not only be a personal success, it would also be a contribution to plugging the holes in the 'leaky pipe'. 'Leaky pipeline' - this term alludes to the fact that more and more female talent is lost the higher the academic hierarchy level. Stefanie Zbinden would like to be among those who remain.
Author: Benedikt Vogel
Portrait #8 of Women in science in the fields of MAP (2021)