- 27 March 2023
Researcher Spotlight: Professor Ita Richardson
Ita Richardson is Professor of Software Quality at the University of Limerick in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. She is also a Co-Principal Investigator in Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software. She received a Lero Director's Prize in 2022 for Diversity and Inclusion for her advocacy of women joining STEM, exemplified by her role as an advisor for Johnson & Johnson's WiSTEM2D mentorship programme. I had the opportunity to talk to Professor Richardson about her career and words of wisdom for young women interested in pursuing a career in computer science.
Ita Richardson had always enjoyed studying maths. While she was in secondary school, Richardson's aunt was able to go to America to study computing on a National Science Foundation grant. She started Saturday morning classes for 2nd and 5th year students in computer programming, which was Richardson's first exposure to this subject.
From there, Richardson knew she wanted to pursue a degree in this field. At that time, her brother was studying at UL (then called NIHE Limerick) so she had a good idea of what life on that campus would look like. “There was a new programme starting the year I did my Leaving Cert, it was called then Industrial and Management Mathematical Sciences," she recounted. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in Applied Mathematics.
After graduation, Richardson went into industry working in the Information System Department at Wang Laboratories, an American computer company that was "like a precursor to Dell". One major project she worked on was developing the interface between a new warehouse and its ASRS (automated storage and retrieval system).
She returned to education after a period of maternity leave, completing a Master in Maths and Computing, and subsequently took a position in the UL Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. By that point, NIHE Limerick had received university status and thus had an expectation of highly educated lecturers. "It was very clear that if I was to stay in academia, I needed to do a Ph.D."
It took some time, but she found a suitable concept: developing a software process model for use by small companies, exploring how people develop software for their needs. She worked on her doctorate part-time for 7 years, graduating in December 1999.
In 2001, she became head of the department. Around this time, Science Foundation Ireland announced their Research Centres programme. Richardson joined Lero, the centre for software researchers, which had great interest from IT companies who had bases in Ireland. "One of the things that most of the companies were interested in was what we call global software development – so how do people develop software in the global situation?" This became one of the main focuses of Richardson's work, as she spent 20 years creating and expanding global software engineering models.
MedTech and Connected Health
Richardson also saw how MedTech companies were transitioning from hardware development (the physical components of devices) to software (the code that controls the device's functioning). She began to research regulations for software development on medical devices, for both personal and clinical use, to ensure that privacy and security were maintained and that the development process was transparent.
Richardson's most recent research focus has been on connected health. From a paper Richardson co-wrote in September 2022: "Connected Health is where patient-centred care results from following defined healthcare pathways undertaken by healthcare professionals, patients and/or carers who are supported by the use of technology (software and/or hardware), regulated when used as a Medical Device, and facilitating appropriate health data sharing." Crucially, the technology is carefully monitored to preserve patient confidentiality. Richardson restates the core principle that "it's not the technology that makes the healthcare, the technology supports the healthcare."
Changes in Her Field
As Richardson has worked for over 20 years in her field, she has witnessed many changes, both technological and cultural. Richardson described how "software has become much more pervasive", and how rapidly smartphones and other tech have become ubiquitous. She mentioned the effect the COVID pandemic had on streamlining software systems between hospitals, GPs, and pharmacies, inviting new possibilities for remote treatment.
Richardson also highlighted the coming changes in community care. She believes that technology will allow more self-monitoring, lightening the burden on the current healthcare system. She notes that some technologies created for recreation, such as dance touchpads, can be repurposed into at-home assistive technology. "It's not about the technology waiting to be created, it's about how do we use that technology."
In terms of workplace inclusion, Richardson recalled how her industry had much fewer opportunities for women. She gave the example of asking to be on an interview board for her company and being told that "that would put three women on the board, and the men would be very cross, although there were often boards made up of three men." Richardson believes that now there is much more awareness about equal treatment regardless of gender. The problem currently facing Irish society is the treatment of immigrants, refugees, and international students, particularly on university campuses. "The more we can do, the more we can educate, the more we can be positive about it, one would hope that…society ultimately will become better at this."
Words of Advice
For any young woman interested in pursuing a career in computer science, Professor Richardson advised them to focus on their passion to help them get through the more difficult parts of their degree. "Sometimes the fear of the unknown stops people, but if you can get over that fear of the unknown and get into it, there are such excitements there." Richardson touched on the complexity of managing a thriving career as well as starting a family, highlighting the importance of knowing when to focus on quality time with your loved ones. Having all the washing done or the floors vacuumed is less important in comparison to making memories with your family; in her words, "be really good at the important things and ignore the rest."
Professor Richardson has had an impressive career and has been a true trailblazer for other women in computer science. To learn more about her current work, she has a profile on the Lero website here.
WITS thanks Aoife McDarby WITS Student member at the University of Galway and Professor Ita Ruchardson of UL for this researcher profile.