Anna Zawilska Profile

Anna Zawilska (South Africa-at-Large & St John’s 2012) is a candidate for the D.Phil in Computer Science at Oxford University, and holds a BSc and MSc in Engineering from the University of Kwazulu-Natal.  Anna is passionate about human-computer interaction, social computing, online platforms, educational technology, and data analytics. Her previous projects include creating a gesture-controlled computer system which may be used by the disabled or in virtual reality systems.  She is the recipient of the 2010 Woman in Science and Agriculture Scholarship, and was a finalist in the South African Women in Science Awards 2011.  She was recently named in the 2013 list of 200 Young South Africans by the Mail & Guardian newspaper, with those listed being described as “interesting young people doing amazing things” in science and technology.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Anna Zawilska: I would have to say Durban in South Africa.  That’s where my parents are and where I grew up.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favourite author?

Anna Zawilska: There are so many – it depends on the kind of content I’m looking for.  If I’m looking for something more technical, and something that’s going to make me reflect on the deeper philosophical topics then I enjoy authors such as Daniel Kahneman.  I recently read his book Fast and Slow.  Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle was also a really good read.   I think every author has their own value, so I don’t have one specific favourite.

Rhodes Project: If you could meet one female historical figure, who would it be and why?

Anna Zawilska: You’re really asking hard hitting questions here!  It would have to be Marie Curie because we share a Polish heritage and I think that her dedication to her work, and the amount of sacrifice she made towards her scientific work and her vision, were really admirable.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about electronic engineering?

Anna Zawilska: Growing up I went through phases of wanting to be a journalist, a doctor, and a teacher.  My passion for engineering and science in general came fairly late in high school through my luck of having had really great maths and science teachers.  They showed me, in a way that I could really make sense of, that maths and science are really important tools for understanding messy situations and coming up with solutions.  Maths and science became a viable toolkit for me, so engineering was a natural progression because it is centred round the use of these skills to solve practical problems.

Rhodes Project: What are you working on now?

Anna Zawilska: I’ve changed my field a little bit – I’m no longer in electronic engineering, I’m in the Department of Computer Science.  I’ve become more interested in computer systems, rather than building electronic circuits and so on.  My current work is in the design of Massive Open Online Courses – these are free online courses that are taught by leading professors in their fields with really large enrolment rates (in the region of ten thousand students).  The issue is that the way people participate in these online courses is interesting and somewhat controversial – they’ve found that the enrolled students don’t participate in watching lectures, taking quizzes and taking part in discussions as expected, and that’s in part because the people taking these courses are adults who have their own goals in studying.  I’m now considering how to redesign this online platform so that you can support the individual needs of the students and encourage their participation.  It’s a movement away from a very fixed curriculum that offers lectures and quizzes like you would have in primary school, to a platform that takes advantage of all the individual viewpoints of those studying.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

Anna Zawilska:  My final undergraduate design project, where I created a gesture recognition system.  I tried to recreate some of the functionality of the Microsoft Xbox Kinect just using a normal web-camera.  I wrote software that processed the video stream coming from the camera to allow users to enact a certain vocabulary of gestures, and based on those gestures they could manipulate some geometric shapes in the interface that I made.  It was enjoyable because I could actually use the system myself, and being a physical system it was very interactive, so that’s my favourite so far.

Rhodes Project: What do you plan to do in the next few years?

Anna Zawilska:  I hope to finish my D.Phil at Oxford in the next two years, and then go back to South Africa and become involved in a start up company that builds technology for education, and which works towards providing a technological infrastructure for students who would otherwise have no access to these resources.  That would be the ideal situation and I always have that in the back of my mind – I’m always trying to think how I can apply what I’m learning to this kind of project.

Rhodes Project: What would a perfect day look like for you?

Anna Zawilska: I’d say the perfect day would consist of me being really productive by being amongst students who would benefit from the technology, being out in the field and learning about what kind would be most appropriate in a certain school.  It would also involve running, as I enjoy running for pleasure, but overall I would want to feel productive towards my goal of providing educational technology in a South African context.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address one issue, local or global, what would it be and why?

Anna Zawilska: You won’t be surprised -- providing technology in South African schools to students who would otherwise have very limited access to resources and teachers.  This requires a lot of investigation and field work about the kinds of technology that really work.  It’s a very in depth problem which would require a lot of resources, and a lot of people’s time and energy.

Rhodes Project: If you could have one super-power, what would it be and why?

Anna Zawilska: It would be the ability to teleport – you would just save so much time on transport!  Plus, since you could teleport from one place to another while in the air, it would be like having a second ability of flight.  I think teleportation would translate into a lot of other cool powers too!

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