Aurora Constantin: Vulnerability attracts empathy, a priceless soft skill that helps us navigate life challenges

Aurora Constantin is a University Teacher and a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, School of Informatics. She is a member of the Artificial Intelligence and Its Applications Institute (AIAI). Her main research interests are in Human-Computer Interaction, Digital Learning, Multimodal Interaction, Assistive Technologies, Educational Technology, Technology for Autism, and Reference Models. She contributed to the design, development and evaluation of a free app (SOFA) which was built on her Ph.D. research work.

„Sir” Aurora Constantin

In 2022, she was awarded The Order of “Cultural Merit” in the rank of Knight, Category H – “Scientific Research” by the President of Romania in appreciation for her important contribution to the promotion of Romania’s image, research, and culture in the United Kingdom of Great Britain. 

Aurora Constantin and Romanian Consul in Edinburgh – Anton Emanuel Barbu

Despite she was diagnosed with progressive muscular disease (muscular dystrophy) when she was 12, Aurora was aware that education will be the solution to be an independent person. She has a BSc in Physics from the University of Craiova, followed by a Ph.D. in Physics at the same university. She has had to give up an academic career in Romania because of the lack of accessibility. For 24 years she was a Physics teacher in a high school in Romania – National College Radu Greceanu from Slatina. In 2009, she graduated with an MSC in IT, at the University of Glasgow, UK, then Ph.D. in Informatics from the University of Edinburgh (2015). Since 2019, she has been a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

2009 Graduation at the University of Glasgow

She is passionate about painting and she had several group exhibitions and one personal exhibition. She likes reading classical literature and she loves music, especially classical music. In Scotland, she discovered her passion for Celtic music.

Why are contemporary women scientists almost unknown compared to those of the last century?

I believe this is due to the change in women’s roles in society. The number of women employed increased. Also, more and more countries are paying careful attention to equality, diversity and inclusion. Nevertheless, women have more opportunities in science today than in the past. In parallel, there has been a change in mentality and attitudes toward women. I guess the media and some organizations have also played a crucial role. I think each success story about a woman scientist has a positive impact not only on other women by motivating them but also on how women are perceived.

Slowly but steadily, women receive their rightful place in society, and the traditional image of the woman as a housewife is fading out.

We are talking about promoting and supporting women worldwide. How do such organizations help?

Organizations can help women in various ways, such as sponsoring them to develop their careers, fighting for flexible policies, and mentoring them to become leaders in a world where men still have dominant positions. Also, promoting female role models working in science and not only, as well as fighting against the stereotypes related to women are crucial ways organizations should adopt. 

What can you tell us about women’s representation and involvement in science and technology?

Statistically speaking, although the gender gap is lower today than in the past, this still exists. Even worse, there is still a bias (sometimes unconscious) against women’s job applications noticed both in men and women! And that’s proved by scientific studies.

Speaking about potential, I am confident that women are as capable as men, provided they have the same opportunities.

A recent article published in a famous research journal discusses the reasons for the gap between the number of works produced by men versus women in science. The authors’ main finding is that this gap is generated (at least partially) by “women are credited less in science than men”.

Now, from my 24 years of teaching experience in a high school in Romania, I am inclined to hypothesize that the involvement of young females in science and technology is hindered by the bias of their families and (regretfully) science teachers (regardless their gender) against females in these fields. As an example, I had a female student who insisted on helping her for the Physics Olympiad just because, she said, her class teacher refused to give her a chance. Surprisingly, the student hid from her father that she pursued Physics tutorials, as he disagreed with her following a career in Physics. 

I fight against my own bias as I am convinced that nobody is ‘clean’

Why is women’s solidarity so important in science and technology and beyond? Women support themselves in the private area, but less in the public area. It is said that women do not promote women.

I agree that solidarity is important in science and technology and beyond. However, it is simply too difficult to work in isolation today, and I don’t want to go into details.

However, I cannot generalize this statement “Women support themselves in the private area, but less in the public area”. I think it depends. I am unaware of the statistics, but my intuition tells me this is a myth. 

How do you experience feminism in your personal / professional / social life?

My understanding of feminism is very simple and can be defined as equality of opportunities and rights for all genders. Consequently, I act always in the name of this equality. That means that I try to foster an atmosphere of respect, collaboration, honesty, fairness and commitment where I work. If I notice any gender-related bias (even unconscious), I help that person (regardless they are women or men) to reduce the bias without judging. Nevertheless, I fight against my own bias as I am convinced that nobody is ‘clean’.

Which were the most difficult time in your career and personal life and how did you overcome them? 

The most challenging moment in my career was in 1990 when I had to decide between applying for a lectureship at a university and a position as a teacher in a high school. I was keen on going to the university, but I knew that in very few years, I could not cope with the lack of accessibility. The job involved working in various places where buildings had no ramps and lifts, and amphitheaters had giant steps, insurmountable for me at that time and indeed impossible to climb if I used a wheelchair. It was a real turmoil for me to decide, mainly since I had covered most of the topics for the lectureship exam. One day, I had a discussion with the late Professor Oliviu Gherman, who asked me to think about how I would feel if I took the job, but I would be forced to leave it in a few years when my illness would reduce my mobility. Finally, after lengthy discussions with my family, I decided to go to a high school. How did I overcome that situation? I kept in the bottom of my heart the hope that one day the infrastructure would change and I would have accessibility to embrace an academic career. Unfortunately, that did not happen in Romania, so 20 years later, I decided to leave high school and go to Scotland to start a new career at the university.

In my personal life, the most difficult moment was the loss of my dad, as he was our family lighthouse. There are no words to express the pain. It took me a long time to learn how to cope with the pain. However, my father’s remembrance helped me go over the moment, as I felt that somehow magically, he did not leave us. He has always been around and will be with us forever.

Regular training on unconscious bias is mandatory at our university

You are living proof of promoting gender equality and diversity&inclusion. How does it happen concretely? Examples of good practices worldwide – seen and experienced. And also bad practices. 

This happens naturally. I strongly believe in equality, diversity and inclusion, and I act in this sense whenever there is an opportunity: within the university where I work and wherever I travel. I try to discuss with people and sensitize them toward the problems entailed by the lack of equality and/or accessibility for people with special needs. In the past, I was reticent to discuss that because I feared that people take it as a complaint since I am a wheelchair user. Now, I believe this is a duty, as making people aware of these problems helps increase empathy and understanding toward diverse people, which are essential abilities if we want to live in a better world.

As examples of good practices, I can mention various services and working groups that support equality, diversity and inclusion within institutions, such as Disability and Learning Support Service in our university, or working groups that promote accessibility. Our university has courses on these topics, which are compulsory for each staff member. We need to take these courses every three years and pass a test. I found the training on unconscious bias beneficial. Basically, unconscious bias means holding pre-conceived beliefs about certain groups of people, affecting everyone, with no exception. Since it influences our decisions, it is essential to identify and counteract its effect. The course helps people become aware that unconscious bias exists everywhere and provides ways to identify and fight against it.

Regarding bad practices, I have a lot of examples from my own experience, particularly in Romania, but it makes me sad to recount them. I would rather provoke people reading this interview to think about an instance of bad practice. I promised to write a blog, maybe a book (why not?) on this topic, extending the bad practices over other protected characteristics, such as disability, age or race.

Being vulnerable helps with developing resilience which is essential in achieving one’s goals

You are living proof of what we call The power of vulnerability. How would you describe it in your case?

In my case, it was the vulnerability power that propelled me forward. Sadly or maybe happily, I knew that I could not fight against my illness, so I had no choice but to ‘embrace’ it and live with it. I was around 12 years old when some weird incidents happened, and I could not understand why. Sometimes I was advised to control my walk as I was somehow waggling; sometimes, I suddenly fell down, apparently without reason. Finally, when I was diagnosed with a progressive muscular disease, I had stayed in the hospital long enough to learn about muscular diseases and how they affect an individual. For more than one month, when a series of investigations were made, I interacted with other patients (children and adults), and I noticed the symptoms at different stages. I could not believe that could happen to me, but when the diagnosis came, I was kind of thunderstruck. Nobody had heard about muscular dystrophy in my family, and doctors assured my parents that this was treatable. However, in spite of my strong will to play the fool with myself, I had already understood how this perfidious illness works, and I knew that I would likely be forced to use a wheelchair sooner or later. At that time, I was in my sixth class, and soon, I was ready to leave my village to attend a high school in a city. Then, I became increasingly aware that I have no chance to succeed without learning very hard. I used to joke that, since my primary and secondary education had always been under the slogan “Straight ahead” (inevitably, I was a communist pioneer), I had no option other than going forward. My curiosity and thirst for learning helped me, as well as my parents’ constant support and encouragement. I guess that being vulnerable helps with developing resilience which is essential in achieving one’s goals. Sometimes, my vulnerability helped me generate creative ways of dealing with the problems I encountered.

My vulnerability helped me generate creative ways of dealing with the problems I encountered

One more advantage for me consisted of the few possible future directions, I believe. For example, I would have liked to become a doctor, but I knew that was not physically possible. So when I had to choose my career, it was straightforward: Physics! That was what I liked most, and in the worst scenario, I could work as a teacher in a high school that does not require much physical motion and effort.

Thus, to summarise, my power of vulnerability can be translated as awareness of my vulnerability, acceptance of living with it, working hard and identifying creative ways to overcome any barriers. I may also add that vulnerability attracts empathy, a priceless soft skill that helps us navigate life challenges.

You are also an inspirational role model because, despite your illness, you succeed to perform in the highest degree. What is your inner power?

We all have capabilities, and it’s up to us to use them and do our best.

I strongly believe in the parable of talents. So, I believe God gives us a set of gifts (talents in everyday meaning or capabilities), and our duty is to discover and develop them. Once we do that, we get a purpose for our life and that inner power to help us move forward.

Photos: Aurora Constantin and Ema P Photography

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