Dr Sue Black
Dr Sue Black, Founder, TechMums. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

Dr Sue Black: Tech is the mother of invention for mums (video)

19 Jun 2015

Technology can empower mums — from learning software skills to run businesses to applying science for healthier pregnancies.

Dr Sue Black hates the expression ‘It’s so easy your Mum could do it.’ It puts mothers off in the corner, and that is simply not warranted: “Mums are just as smart as anyone else,” she says.

Black should know — she’s the founder of #techmums, a social enterprise that is empowering mothers by teaching them computer skills, and the results are staggering. 

Mothers spend two hours per week during school hours doing the training together at the children’s school. Over the course of 10 weeks they learn how to use email, documents and spreadsheets, how to design apps and websites, how to use social media, how to keep safe online and how to code with Python. “It’s about getting them hands-on with tech and teaching them coding,” explained Black during her keynote at Inspirefest 2015.

Learning those skills results not only in self-confidence rocketing, but mums on the course have quickly applied their new technical abilities to set up new businesses, to work in a smarter way and to understand how their kids use social media. #Techmums has started in An Cosán in Tallaght with impressive results, and Black would like to see it up and running all around Ireland. 

‘So can you’ 

Her inspiration to set up the social enterprise grew from her own experience: aged 25 she was a single parent living on a council estate wondering how she could give her kids the life she wanted to give them, so she went to college, earned a degree in computing and a PhD in software engineering and kickstarted an academic career.

The lack of women in tech prompted Black to set up BCSWomen back in 2003, which in turn led to a campaign to save the World War II computing nerve centre Bletchley Park (the subject of Inspirefest 2015 speaker Kerry Howard’s talk). 

A tweet from Stephen Fry ignited the initiative and their efforts were successful. Black has a crowdfunded book about the experience coming out later this year. 

The social entrepreneur — who had everyone in the audience stand up and announce that they were awesome —  had an overarching message from her experience: “If I can do it, so can you.”

Tech for safer pregnancies

Keynote speaker Prof Louise Kenny is also helping mums — this time during pregnancy. The consultant obstetrician at Cork University Hospital describes herself as working in a “happiness factory” and gets huge satisfaction at playing a role in such an important time for families.

But problems can arise, and Kenny co-directs the Science Foundation Ireland INFANT Centre, which is carrying out research on potentially life-threatening issues such as pre-eclampsia. Each year globally the condition, which manifests in late pregnancy, is estimated to cause 70,000 maternal deaths, 500,000 neonatal deaths and to be responsible for about 20pc of neonatal intensive care unit admissions.

Yet the fundamental manner in which we diagnose pre-eclampsia hasn’t changed for centuries, according to Kenny, who has been looking for biochemical markers or ‘metabolites’ in the blood in early pregnancy that can identify women who are at risk of developing the condition later on.

She led on a major international project called SCOPE, which identified a suite of metabolites that could potentially be used in a blood test to screen women in early pregnancy and direct resources towards them if needed. 

Kenny and the researchers at INFANT are also working on the LEANBH project with IBM to test home-based monitors for blood pressure readings so that women don’t have to make multiple journeys into the clinic to be tested during pregnancy. 

She is keen that the technology can help not only women in developed countries like Ireland, but more globally where distance or resources may provide a challenge. “It’s a sad fact that global inequality in health disproportionately affects women and children,” she says. “And we are hoping to use our 21st technology and translate it to low-resource settings.”

Updated at 1.40pm on 30 June 2015 to include video of Prof Louise Kenny’s keynote address.

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

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