Professor Lizette de Wet is one of the trail-blazers in the field of the human-computer interaction (HCI). That she is a woman makes this a particularly noteworthy and extra-ordinary achievement. De Wet is the current associate professor in the department of computer science and informatics at the University of the Free State (UFS).
The UFS found it fitting to celebrate her for pioneering the HCI research environment on 11 February – the very same day the world was also commemorating the ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science’.
Professor de Wet is a woman of many firsts; she boasts being one of the first students to finish a master’s degree in her field at Unisa in 1994, she established the HCI research area in the UFS’s department of computer science and informatics, just to mention two.
So scarce was the expertise in de Wet’s area of speciality that when she studied for her master’s degree, Unisa had to rope in the external examiner from the University of York in the UK.
De Wet said establishing the HCI at the UFS was no mean feat. It involved undertaking research projects, she said, in the discipline as well as developing curricula for second year module, an honours module, and a master’s module. “The second-year module was also one of two modules on campus to first use iPads in class to assist in a blended learning approach,” said de Wet.
But she said of all he achievements, the one that stands out is obtaining her PhD while she was employed on full-time basis, being a mother and looking after her two young daughters. Said de Wet: “I consider obtaining my PhD while balancing my work, my marriage, and two young daughters (who did not sleep through before reaching age four!) as one of my biggest achievements.”
De Wet said she believes that the main focus, in the research field of HCI, is on the user and his or her overall experience in using the computer. This includes emotions, feelings, and competence when one uses a computer. She said: “Taking the human being into consideration is much more important than simply concentrating on the programming code that needs to be written.”
De Wet said it does not matter whether a person writing the code is male or female. There is “no gender distinction between what women and men could achieve in the field of Computer Science and Informatics”, she said.
She said the number of women within the sector is steadily increasing. “Although the students are still predominantly male, in the past few years more and more female students have enrolled for our post-graduate studies and completed it successfully, some of them with exceptional marks,” said de Wet. In South-Africa, she added, many women are making their mark in this discipline by being heads of departments at universities or in the private sector, by chairing national and international conferences, and by publishing ground-breaking research.
Recently, de Wet’s concentration was on “using brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and virtual reality in her research”. By the end of last year, she had successfully supervised 11 master’s students and four PhD students, another enviable achievement within the academic environment. What is more, one of her master’s students delivered a ‘ground-breaking research’ using virtual reality in the training of nursing students.
Elaborating on this achievement, de Wet said: “The prototype involved virtually examining and evaluating a patient (with a foreign object lodged in a lung) in a virtual ward while wearing an Oculus Rift headset. The evaluation results were extremely positive and will be continued as a PhD study to investigate how to attempt to relieve motion sickness in an immersive virtual clinical simulation.”
De Wet, like most of her contemporaries, never had access to a computer when she was growing up or during her school years. But she strongly holds the view that South Africa, despite being a developing country, can still make computers accessible to far-flung rural communities including to senior citizen who did not grow up using technology.