An Interview with Stefania Serafin

Interview by Anna Xambó, Anna Weisling, and Takumi Ogata
May 15, 2017

Photo (above): Stefania in her home town Venice.

A few words about Stefania:
Stefania Serafin is Professor in sound for multimodal environments at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, where she pioneered the media technology program Medialogy. Her research areas include sound modeling, multimodal interfaces, and sonic interaction design. Professor Serafin is President of the Sound and Music Computing (SMC) network and has been Co-Chair of NIME 2017. She received a PhD in Computer Based Music Theory and Acoustics (CCRMA, Stanford University) with the thesis “The Sound of Friction” (2004), a DEA-ATIAM degree in Acoustics, Signal Processing and Computer Science applied to Music (IRCAM), a BSc in Computer Science (summa cum laude, University Ca’ Foscari of Venice, Italy
), and a degree in violin performance and music theory. 


Why did you choose music tech as a field of study?
When I was a kid I was forced to play the violin, I never liked it! I’ve always been interested in technical subjects like mathematics and programming. After studying computer science (CS) as a bachelor, I found out that it was possible to combine my music background with my engineering CS background. By chance, I moved to IRCAM in Paris as a programmer, and then I studied the DEA-ATIAM master. Then, I got interested on the physics of the violin and found out that the best for that field is Julius Smith at Stanford. I was very lucky to be able to study with him for a PhD. Currently, I run the Multi-Sensory Experience Lab, where we work not only with sound but also with visuals and haptics.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of being a woman during your graduate studies?
In general, for me, it has never been a problem. When I was studying CS, we were very few women and close friends who never felt like a discriminated minority. In the IRCAM’s master, we were just two women, the same ratio than the previous year (see the interview with Emilia Gómez) and, unfortunately, the same than in our SMC master. At CCRMA, we were two female graduate PhD students. In the two years above us, there were one and one, and we were also very good friends. In CCRMA, everybody is friend of everybody, where they are 24/7, and in music technology, I never experienced any problem.

But sometimes it can be tough. A funny story is that when I moved here 14 years ago (initially located in Esbjerg, West Coast of Denmark), the first time I entered in the building of the Engineering School of Copenhagen, they were like “Welcome back”, “Welcome back? This is the first time I enter the building”, “I thought you were the Mexican cook who was making tacos for us in the Summer School” [laughs]. That was like a traditional engineering school where everybody was white Danish above 50, so they could not assume that there could be a faculty member. I had to be the Mexican cook. I laugh still now. Another episode happened at the Digital Audio Effects (DAFX) conference in 2001, where we were only two women. The other woman was also from CCRMA, but she was the opposite of me: very tall and blonde-like. Her research was about the guitar, and I was presenting research on the violin. At the end of her talk, somebody went to her and said “I really liked your talk on the violin”. We were laughing thinking “These hopeless nerds, just women, they cannot even distinguish in shape… “ [laughs]. With all these gender equalities, I am asked so much to be in committees just because there are few women. Being a woman for that is annoying. Having more women would be good.

How important is it to have a mentor?
My mom was my mentor when I was young. After that, my best mentor is Julius Smith, my PhD supervisor. Also Chris Chafe and all the wonderful people at CCRMA. I remember John Chowning in DAFX 2001, where he was a keynote speaker. Of course I had heard a lot about him, but I never met him personally because he had been away for a while. At the conference, he was sitting in the first row because he wanted to meet all the students from Stanford. He said to me: “You did such a wonderful presentation, thank you very much, so nice to meet you”. He was such a big personality. The computer music pioneers have been, maybe not mentors because I have not worked with them, but role models, definitely. I remember playing violin together with Max Mathews at 8am. I also spent a couple of months at Berkeley and met David Wessel. Unfortunately, I did not have any female role model like them.

What is your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part is the one that I can never do, which is sitting, programming, doing things, and being in the lab. Being a PhD student was much better! As a faculty member, there is too much of politics. I am not good at it, and I am not too fund of the politics involved in grants writings either! My favorite is teaching. In the Media Technology program, I am teaching the Multimodal Perception and Cognition class, which is all about discussion and students keep asking for breaks. In the SMC program, we teach Programming Sound Effects. The hours go by, it is much more fun!

Why there are few female students in music tech, and how it can be improved?
In our department we have educations such as Service Design and Light Design that attract many women because there is the word design, but in Sound and Music Computing, the word computing scares many women. Our stereotype student is Southern European male. There are very good students, which I am very happy about, but it would be nicer to have more women. Gender-wise, we do not have a problem in the faculty because we are 50/50. When recruiting students, there is something missing to make the SMC program interesting to clever women. I do not want to recruit a bunch of bimbos [laughs] just to make the numbers match. We made some merchandising for the open house where it was written programming, sensors, and so on – to help students to know the content of the Media Technology program. Three blondine arrived and as soon as they saw it they said: “No, no, this is not for me”.

It is really about starting from the young age, before you get the prejudice that programming is not for you. For my daughter, programming is not only for boys, but many girls grow up with this idea. Same with me: my mom was a mathematician, so for me mathematics has never been something for boys, but it is a problem for many girls and also for their parents. At NIME kids, we had this very nice workshop on sounding robots, and some of the parents were like “but this is not really for her…”, but then they gave a chance and the girl had a blast: she was programming a robot and she wanted to continue. You forget what the parents tell you: “This is not for you, you have to wear pink, and you have to play with dolls”. It is not about all female students need to be in technology, but they should be encouraged that programming is not only for boys and they should see it as an opportunity. We are going to do more outreach workshops like NIME kids. We really like to get to work with outside communities and try to involve them. That is why the NIME concerts and workshops are open to everyone. It is good to bring it out to people who are not involved in it. It takes the time and effort but it is very interesting. Thinking in future ideas, now there is a lot of combination between fabrication and design. Hopefully, those elements will also attract a more creative female audience, not just a traditional stereotype nerd.

Were there any efforts to try and ensure a certain level of diversity at this NIME 2017?
We tried, but not hard enough. Amalia De Goetzen, who is also diversity chair of SMC 2017, programmed all the session chairs, and we discussed that we could have gender issues because of the lack of women. She sent emails but women did not reply. That is also a problem. For the keynotes, we have 33% female with 66% male from Stanford because we really wanted both Ge Wang and Chris Chafe. It was a bit by chance because last year in Brisbane, we were having a nice conversation with Ge and we said “Why don’t you come and give a keynote about that?”, but we had already asked Chris to give a keynote, they are both great. Then we invited Dorit Chrysler, a Theremin virtuoso, because we were specifically looking for a woman. However, the submissions are anonymous so there is not much you can do. It is good that they are anonymous so there is no discrimination. For the concerts, it’s not that bad actually. I am looking forward to your performance!

What do you think about the performance last night with the burlesque dancing? It was clearly intentionally provocative, wasn’t?
Yes, Lady Effulgent is awesome. She is very clever and I really like that she has this side of her which is very feminine. This is another problem that women in technology should not look like men, we should keep our femininity. It does not mean that if you are feminine, you are not clever. I remember this IEEE women‘s slogan of “We are engineers, we don’t do nails, we do math”. That is so silly because why can’t you do both? I wish I had time to do nails. I think that the ultimate engineer is the one who can code with perfect nails! [laughs]. Lady Effulgent does those kind of performances and she really likes the burlesque aspect of it. I did not find it offensive because I know her and she likes to perform. She does it very well! I understand though that it is a beautiful performance, but at the same time, you don’t want it to have it as an example of you having to strip to win…

Any final words?
It is great that you are doing this kind of initiatives, congratulations! It would be nice to spread those initiatives also to the SMC network. We have tried but not hard enough.

Acknowledgments: We are extremely grateful to the Georgia Tech School of Music, College of Design‘s Diversity Council, Women’s Resource Center, and Digital Media Program (School of Literature, Media, and Communication) for funding our travel to the NIME 2017 conference.

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