Computing pioneer aims for impact as researcher, mentor

Dr Xiaoyu Sun is the first recipient of the Pioneering Women Lectureship, designed to address the need for more women in computing.

Research Impact

Computing pioneer aims for impact as researcher, mentor
Computing pioneer aims for impact as researcher, mentor

In the eyes of most, she had already made it.

Xiaoyu Sun was a young software engineer in Hangzhou, China. Her job with the e-commerce giant Alibaba was to optimise back-end systems, software products, and mobile applications that served more than 80 million businesses.

She had a good salary and upward mobility. She had been offered stock options if she completed four years with the company, and she only had two to go.

“But it wasn’t my dream,” she said.

In 2019, she said goodbye to her job, her hometown, her friends, and her family to pursue an academic career in Australia. At Monash University, she picked up the nickname ‘Chloe’ along with a doctorate in Android Security and Software Engineering.

Now, she is being welcomed to the Australian National University (ANU) as the first recipient of the Pioneering Women Lectureship. Dr Sun arrived in Canberra in July to begin what she hopes will be an extensive career as researcher and teacher.

“My life as an academic brings me considerably greater contentment,” Dr Sun said. “It affords me the opportunity to pursue my passions and collaborate with individuals whom I deeply respect.”

The ANU School of Computing’s Pioneering Women Program (PWP), which also offers higher degree research (HDR) scholarships, is accepting applications for its second round of grant funding until 6 November 2023.

Seeding a sisterhood

Dr Sun’s joins ANU as Lecturer of Software Engineering in the School of Computing, where she will expand upon her research and begin teaching next semester.

Although she worked as a tutor while completing her PhD in Melbourne, COMP 4130 Managing Software Quality and Process will be her first experience as a teacher.

“I am preparing by studying the textbook and designing assignments,” she said. “I find teaching rewarding because it allows me to impart knowledge, mentor students, and witness their growth as individuals and future professionals.”

Dr Sun hopes that some of her students will be inspired to work with her as research assistants.

During her first 10 weeks in Canberra, she has attended research cluster meetings, faculty meetings, and talks given by her new colleagues. She loves the atmosphere on the ANU campus and has already formed friendships with fellow academics.

“Every Monday night, we play board games together,” Dr Sun said. “It’s kind of nice to feel included in this group, which makes me feel much more relaxed here.”

The funds provided by the Pioneering Women Lectureship — A$20,000 for up to five years — will support her research and career development.

“Starting a new position as junior faculty member can be quite challenging because we don’t have enough funds for research,” Dr Sun said. “With this [PWP funding], I don’t feel the pressure to win grants. I can use the funds to support students who become my research assistants.”

Dr Sun also hopes to use the funds to attend conferences and make connections with computing researchers around the world.

“The Pioneering Women Program is proud to support Xiaoyu Sun as she embarks on her tenure track journey,” saidProfessor Amanda Barnard, AM FRSC FAIP, who chairs the program.“I am sure Xiaoyu’s research assistant positions will be very attractive to our female students. She’s seeding a sisterhood in software engineering.”

Professor Barnard said the program is designed to support “women who help themselves and help others”. She expects the initial recipients — Dr Sun and PhD candidates Sumayya Ziyad and Chunyi Sun (no relation) — to have a rippling effect on the academic community at ANU and beyond.

For her part, Dr Sun has initiatives in the works to support female academics and students, including mentorship programs, networking events, and workshops designed to address the “unique challenges and opportunities that female academics may encounter in their careers”.

Dr Sun has also volunteered her time to create online platforms and policies to facilitate effective management and response to disclosures of sexual harassment.

“These kinds of fellowships and scholarships help a lot, but I don’t think financial support is enough,” said Dr Sun. “We need to explore different ways to encourage women to work in this area.”

Open-source opens doors to innovation

Dr Sun’s research employs program analysis to discover defects and security issues in Android operating systems and applications installed on mobile devices.

“As researchers, we strive to make technical contributions that are recognised in our community for providing more friendly, cleaner software systems to everyday people,” she said.

Dr Sun explained that she focuses on Android devices because Google has chosen an open-source approach to software development.

“It’s much easier for us to look for vulnerabilities and confirm the existence of bugs we have detected with our tools,” she said. “If we did the same for iOS [which is provided by Apple], it would be much harder because it’s a totally closed platform.”

Dr Sun said there are many people in her research cluster who are working on one of her other research passions: programming language.

“I can see there are many potential collaborations here. It’s kind of great,” she said.

Proud parents celebrate in Hangzhou

“Before I came to Australia, my parents didn’t support me to do a PhD,” Dr Sun recalled. “Their misgivings motivated me to work harder to prove myself to them.”

In Hangzhou, her apartment and job were only 45 minutes away from her parents’ home. She visited them weekly.

She also valued spending time with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Hangzhou.

It’s a close-knit family,” she said. “We often got together for various family gatherings and celebrations.”

As an only child due to China’s one-child policy, she was painfully aware of the importance she held in her parents’ hearts. When she left, she promised to visit them as often as possible. Australia was only a couple of flights away.

But a few months after she began her PhD, the global pandemic made international travel impossible. As Melbourne was hit with extended lockdowns and public health restrictions, Dr Sun spent most of her time alone, working in her lab.

“I would have been in the lab anyway, so the real impact was that I couldn’t go back to China for my family,” she said.

She would not see her parents for more than three years.

“It was hard, but my parents turned out to be very happy because I landed a job here. ANU is very famous in China.”

After learning of her appointment as a lecturer at ANU, Dr Sun flew to Hangzhou to celebrate. She spent the month of June with her parents.

“We did some of the things we used to do when I visited them weekly. We spent quality time together, catching up on our lives and sharing stories,” she said.

Now, her parents are planning a visit to Canberra.

“If they think they can get used to living here, they might join me so we can be together,” Dr Sun said.

You are on Aboriginal land.

The Australian National University acknowledges, celebrates and pays our respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of the Canberra region and to all First Nations Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

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