By Professor Dimitra Simeonidou IEEE Fellow, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, co-director of Bristol Digital Futures Institute and Director of Smart Internet Lab at the University of Bristol 

Professor Dimitra SimeonidouDimitra Simeonidou is a Full Professor at the University of Bristol, the Co-Director of the Bristol Digital Futures Institute and the Director of Smart Internet Lab.

Her research is focusing in the fields of high performance networks, programmable networks, wireless-optical convergence, 5G/B5G and smart city infrastructures. She is increasingly working with Social Sciences on topics of digital transformation for society and businesses. Dimitra has been the Technical Architect and the CTO of the smart city project Bristol Is Open. She is currently leading the Bristol City/Region 5G urban pilots. ​

She is the author and co-author of over 600 publications, numerous patents and several major contributions to standards.​

She has been co-founder of two spin-out companies, the latest being the University of Bristol VC funded spin-out Zeetta Networks, http://www.zeetta.com, delivering SDN solutions for enterprise and emergency networks.​

Dimitra is a Fellow of the Royal Academy  of Engineering, a Fellow of the IEEE and a Royal Society Wolfson Scholar​

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am currently a professor for High Performance Networks at the University of Bristol, and my work expands the development of future telecommunications networks, and smart city infrastructures.

As Director of the Smart Internet Lab, I am working in one of the most prominent research labs in Europe. Our research focuses primarily on end-to-end networking, working across all technology domains – including IoT, wireless, optical, datacentres, hardware and software technologies. Through our research, we design the next generation of network architectures enabling mobile communications, cloud services and the global Internet connectivity.

I am also Co-Director of the University’s Institute of Digital Futures, where we aspire to transform the way we create new digital technology for inclusive, prosperous and sustainable societies, driving social-technical innovation for a better digital future. Given the importance and attention that emerging digital technologies are having for the society, businesses, public regulatory bodies, this is a critical research area and of great importance for the UK and globally.

With regards to industry, I am also a co-founder Zeetta Networks, a venture capital funded spinout company funded from the University of Bristol which delivers Software-Defined Networking (SDN) solutions for enterprise and emergency networks. To date, we have completed several projects, including providing enterprise solutions and network automation tools for stadia, cities and manufacturing plants.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

My love for STEM, and my ardent belief that STEM can change the world, started early. A story I always tell my children and students is that I can remember when I was nine years old, I was lucky enough to read the biography of Marie Curie – I believe I read it five times in one week. I remember at that early age, having a eureka moment, realising that I wanted to conduct research and become a university professor. In hindsight, it’s quite strange, as I come from a remote town in Greece and not from a university-educated family. However, I held onto that initial childhood dream and was inspired to become an academic, pursuing a career in STEM.

That said, I don’t think at any stage of my life I purposely sat down and planned my career, things just happened. I started studying physics, and it wasn’t until I got to higher education that I developed an interest in the field of telecommunications. I have always been driven by interest and curiosity, rather than having any defined career plan. I was greatly inspired by the story of another woman, making real change in another place at a different time.  As such, I believe having female mentors or female role models is extremely important. For me, the story of Marie Curie’s life led to the realisation that a successful career in STEM is possible and rewarding.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Male or female, working in research and being an academic has great challenges. I was pretty determined to pursue an academic career, but after completing my PhD, I moved into industry and worked there for four years. During that time, I worked on the design of the first optical transatlantic submarine network (TAT12), connecting the UK with the US– and forming the backbone of what we call ‘the global internet’ today.

In those four years, I grew from a graduate or research engineer to a chief engineer, having full responsibility over system design for the submarine optical links.  I had proven myself as a relatively young, non-British, female engineer in a male-dominated environment. It was at that point I saw the first glimpse of potential, and I realised that I could achieve things with a profound global impact.

Following those incredible four years, I resumed a career in academia – because, as mentioned, this was my childhood dream. However, academia is not easy, and one must work hard and with great commitment over a long period of time. This is a significant challenge that many young academics face at the onset of their career. I would encourage anybody considering this path to always look at long term career aspirations – don’t expect instant return or immediate success. For example, most research proposals have less than10 percent success rate for being funded, so be vigilant, but remain positive.

Being a woman in engineering and persisting at that level over long periods of time can be particularly difficult. This is because for many of us, having children and young families can cause difficulties in trying to balance academic work and family life. It requires commitment and hard work on both fronts. However, it is extremely rewarding.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Of course, working on the deployment of an optical network between the UK and USA is a huge achievement.  In addition, a notable achievement would be my work on a second system called SEAMEWE3.  This was the longest optical submarine telecommunications cable in the world linking South-East Asia, Middle East and Western Europe. It was during this project that I developed and used my own patent – a wavelength add-drop multiplexer– which allows a single optical system to connect multiple countries in its path. My patent was fundamental for the deployment of such system by significantly reducing the costs and easing operations.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the industry, and I have also enjoyed adding value through commercialising my research, with the companies I founded. However, but my biggest achievement has been the people that I have mentored – specifically, my PhD students. They have completed their research and now hold key posts in businesses and academia, contributing to the international technical community. I am proud to have been part of their journey. For me, the most fulfilling part of being an academic is helping younger people, nurturing their passion and hopefully watching them go on to make a difference around the world.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

My career didn’t necessarily stem from wanting to prove myself as a woman, but from my genuine love of the research field. Even now, this work gets me out of bed every morning, and I am excited to get to my lab to talk to my colleagues.  It is indescribable when we see new discoveries coming out as result of our research and leading to real commercial impact or societal benefits. My curiosity has been my driver to date, and the pursuit of a new discovery.

Research is a long-term career. You can’t sustain it if you are simply driven by your own success without real enthusiasm and passion for your technical field. I am grateful to work at a university where my colleagues are also driven by the same passion, vision and principles.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Research in Engineering and specific digital technologies is a magnificent career and a thriving sector to get into. Engineers don’t always have the best image in the UK and the public does not always have a true understanding of what we do. Often, many people assume we operate in a world filled with dark labs, lab coats and overalls day-in and day-out! The truth is, we do so much more than that. We solve real world problems, we travel the world, we build wonderful international relationships and work in a supportive community of very intelligent and creative people. It truly is a rewarding profession.

In this profession, expect to be challenged every day – there is never a dull moment, if you choose to become an engineer. The work is interesting, and you get to see the direct impact of your work. Consider the contribution that I have made to the internet during my career, the internet through which you are now reading my story. Consider the people working in energy, and how they are leading solutions on environmental sustainability and driving the economy. With a career in STEM you see how your work touches every aspect of our lives. You are working for the benefit of society, humanity and the economy. I would go so far as to say that it’s a glamourous profession – but the public don’t really see that side!

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are still barriers for women. For me, the fact that I am a woman and have a family has been challenging, considering my career in research and the required travel as part of an international community. Often, women are still expected to perform a balancing act and naturally, this can impact our career progression. There should be more support for women in this respect.

When I was an early career academic, I was extremely lucky. We had childcare on campus – but without that, it would have been a struggle, given the hours we devote to our research and teaching. There are some examples of best practice, but more needs to be done. This is especially true within companies and industry to attract and keep talented women in the workforce when they choose to have a family.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I strongly believe that successful women in senior positions have a responsibility to nurture and encourage a pipeline of future female talent. There needs to be more intervention at earlier stages – schools, teachers and government should continue to encourage young girls into STEM, explaining just how amazing, and accessible, this profession can be.