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Department of Computer Science and Technology

Image shows PhD student Sian Gooding

After dropping out of school, Sian Gooding went to sell PCs in a high-street retailer. It got her hooked on computing and eight years later she’s an award-winning student here, working towards her PhD. She tells us about her journey.

Sian is a researcher here in the Natural Language and Information Processing group. Her research is on building tools to automatically adapt text to suit the needs of audiences – such as language learners or "the seven million adults in this country with very low literacy skills" – to make it accessible.

"If I’d seen my current CV in 2012, I’d never have believed it. Back then I had given up on education and was doing a full-time retail job."

She is researching a subject she is passionate about, and pursuing her studies in a place she loves. However, eight years ago, she would never have believed that her dream of working towards a PhD here could come to fruition.

"If I’d seen my current CV in 2012, I’d never have believed it," Sian says. "Back then I had given up on education and was doing a full-time retail job.

"The idea of becoming a PhD student and Harding Scholar at the University of Cambridge was unimaginable – as was getting a First in my BSc, ranking top of the class for my MPhil thesis, and interning at Google. That’s why I feel it is important to be candid about my journey here," she adds, "because it is absolutely possible to get to Cambridge using 'the road less travelled' ".

"Never give up, no matter the odds"
Sian has returned to her old school to give motivational talks to students and has taken part in a 'Successful Women in Tech' event to tell participants about her journey and encourage them to "never give up, no matter the odds".

And later this month, she’ll be in conversation with Professor Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, one of a group of remarkable students who have been enabled to study at Cambridge through scholarships and bursaries. As the University says, "Student support has transformed these students' lives, and they may well transform ours."

Sian, the child of a working class family in Birmingham, was studying for A Levels when she found herself becoming disillusioned with her choice of subjects  "I couldn’t appreciate the relevance of Maths and Physics," she says  so she dropped out of school. Needing to find work, she landed a job with the retailer PC World.

Her role was in sales, talking to customers on the shop floor, but increasingly she found herself spending her breaks and her lunch hour at the shop's Knowledge Bar, talking to the colleagues who were repairing computers. "I found it really interesting," she says. "I learned a lot about computers and it made me think that maybe I could study computer science." 

It inspired her to go back to her books and study for her A Levels while working full time. "I would walk around the shop, math books hidden under my laptop, studying at every spare moment."

Facing 'imposter syndrome'
Eventually, after passing, she was accepted into the University of Birmingham to study Computer Science. Despite excelling on her degree course, she frequently felt inferior to her classmates because of their greater experience with coding. "For a good half of the undergraduate programme I struggled because, unlike many students, I hadn’t done Computer Science A Level, and had arrived on the course without any experience of coding."

After her degree, she started a job in industry but then, feeling she wanted to make a greater impact on the world, applied to undertake postgraduate study in Cambridge. When she was accepted to study for an MPhil at the Department of Computer Science she still harboured doubts: "I very much suffered from 'imposter' syndrome and worried about my technical ability". 

"I strongly believe that 'You Can’t Be What You Don't See', so having the support of female role models was really motivating for me."

However, she quickly found that she was really enjoying the course, the research and the city. At the end of the year Sian received the Google Thesis Award for the highest-ranked MPhil thesis of the year. "That was an incredible moment for me and I owe a lot to my MPhil supervisor Dr. Ekaterina Kochmar for her support and encouragement during that year."

Sian then stayed on for a year (having been offered a Research Assistant position) and was subsequently awarded a Harding Scholarship to study for her PhD on tools for text simplification. One of the things that encouraged her to apply for a PhD was having female role models here in the Department.

"I strongly believe that 'You Can’t Be What You Don't See'," she explains. "So having the support of such role models (namely Dr. Ekaterina Kochmar and Prof. Paula Buttery) was really motivating for me." 

Pandemic has 'widened the gap between ability levels'
Sian is now in the second year of her PhD  – and she believes the pandemic has only made her work more critical.

"I believe that research on AI tools for language learning and text accessibility are incredibly important  – especially when we consider how education over the past year has moved online due to Coronavirus – as this has led to a widening of the gap between ability levels," she says. 

Sian further explains that the choice to work on text simplification and educational applications was personally motivated. "My mother learned to read as an adult, which had a huge impact on her life  – and on my understanding of the inequalities in the education system."

Sian is now passionate about developing tools to help those struggling with literacy because "one of the really pernicious aspects about not being able to read is that often there is an attached stigma," she explains. "For language learners, or people with low literacy skills, trying to read text from unfamiliar sources or on unfamiliar topics is really difficult. This problem doesn’t only apply to adults. We know that one in five children struggle to read and that this impacts on all areas of their education." 

"The journey has taught me that self-belief and perseverance are invaluable."

As someone who once dropped out of education herself, before eventually realising that research was the path for her, Sian now very much values the opportunities that she has here.

Describing her experience of studying here, she says: "Every day I wake up and I am so happy and thankful that I’m doing what I do. The journey has taught me that self-belief and perseverance are invaluable qualities. Those who have given me support along the way have my gratitude and appreciation."

Twitter: @SianGooding 







Published by Rachel Gardner on Sunday 7th March 2021