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'Old Girl' Oxford Professor inspires STEM girls at MSJ

Computing OGA

Old Girl Professor Ursula Martin, CBE, FRSE, and Fellow of Wadham College, University of Oxford, attended MSJ on 2 October to give a talk on Ada Lovelace: Programmes, Music and Thinking Machines.

Professor Martin asked what modern computers, digital music and artificial intelligence have to do with an English aristocrat born 200 years ago. Despite her historical significance, Ada Lovelace does not feature on current curriculums, and the talk was a fascinating insight into a pioneering woman of the Victorian era whose name is not as recognised as it should be.

Professor Martin herself is something of a pioneer. She was the first female professor in any discipline at the University of St Andrews since its founding in 1411. She was subsequently part of the senior management team at Queen Mary University of London, before taking up her current role at Oxford. She is a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of Edinburgh, joining a select group of outstanding academics and celebrated professionals.

Professor Martin  is an Old Girl of The Abbey, one of MSJ’s founding schools, and she brought back her school day friends Jenny Moore (Trow), Jill Crowson (Carding) and Sarah Weller (Coates). All remembered her as a brilliant mathematician, even back then. Before she came to the talk, Ursula visited her former mathematics teacher, Miss Castledine, at Davenham in Malvern.

Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on his computer prototype, the Analytical Engine, in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. She was the first to recognise that the machine had applications beyond calculation and created the first algorigthm intened to be carried out by such a machine. Because of this, she is often referred to as the first computer programmer.

Lovelace lived in an extraordinary era when science and poetry had captured the popular imagination. There was excitement about all aspects of science from botany to water treatments; the British Association for Science had been formed and lectures and events about science abounded. There was also an interaction between the scientists and poets of the day, and Ada enjoyed a close friendship with the author Charles Dickens who she met through her tutor, Mary Somerville.

Professor Martin gave a hugely interesting talk and afterwards a supper was hosted for girls studying Maths, Computing and STEM A Levels, as well as those interested in applying for STEM subjects at Oxford and other universities.

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