National efforts to promote the inclusion of women in a number of fields that are traditionally dominated by men, such as information technology, have begun to reap results. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the number of highly accomplished female graduates of information and computer technology at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q).
This year alone, 48 women will graduate in a range of technical fields alongside 33 of their male compatriots, and among them are the exemplary women who have defied conventional attitudes and followed their passion for information technology.
Two such examples are graduates Sidra Alam from Bangladesh, and Hanan Mohammed Alshikhabobakr from Yemen, who have both earned a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from CMU-Q, one of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development’s partner universities.
Their mutual interest and appreciation for computers has allowed the young women to forge a strong friendship and spurred them to work together on a number of challenging technical projects. Sidra, 23, and Hanan, 22, say they are keen to set an example for other aspiring female programmers through their active participation in the creation of technology.
“In five years, I would like to create more opportunities for students here in Qatar from primary grades and up to high school,” says Hanan. “When you learn robotics, you learn mathematics, engineering, English – it is a package of a lot of disciplines, skills and teamwork. It is a very interactive way and I am sure that Qatar will support this initiative, so I hope to someday start an institution where people can come in and learn robotics.”
Sidra echoes similar sentiments and points out that her interest in computer science developed from a very young age. “When I was little, I used to love video games and I was absolutely amazed at how they were created. I learned basic DOS commands as a child and a bit of Linux programming. Then in high school, I developed a strong background in C++, a programming language,” explains Sidra.
Last year, the graduates were the proud recipients of Google’s Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship program and were chosen amongst 40 bright young women from the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region for their academic performance and future potential in the field, with the hope that they will become role models and continue to actively pursue their interest.
The scholarship program by Google honors Anita Borg, a computer science pioneer who dedicated her life to changing the way people think about diversity and technology. The well-established program continues to support undergraduate and postgraduate women who are completing degrees in computer science and related areas, recognising and encouraging the next generation of technical leaders and role models.
“We were required to submit all of our accomplishments throughout our course of study, including research that we had undertaken in the past, community service, also our grades and technical abilities played a big role,” explains Hanan. “The specific task that we were eager to explore in terms of software programming was a multi-robot simulation, so if you bring a team of robots into a new building which they are not familiar with – how can they collaborate and navigate to build a comprehensive map of the building?”
To solve that problem, the resourceful students were able to simulate the process in both computer language and in real life. Afterwards, they compared the results to offer a clear insight into the mechanisms required to create the program. “You definitely have to take the initiative and be open to new ideas and opportunities,” says Sidra.
Fatema Akbar is another outstanding CMU-Q graduate who shares the same sentiments when it comes to sharing knowledge. The intelligent 21-year-old has already made impressive strides in her undergraduate studies and earned a well-deserved place at Oxford University in the UK where she hopes to complete a Master’s program in the Social Science of the Internet.
“I believe this is an active area of research in the region, especially as the internet is changing many aspects of education, society, politics, and healthcare,” explains Fatema. “I would like to transform the knowledge that I have obtained from my research and studies into educational policies, teaching material or published material.”
As a Bahraini national, Fatema is eager to contribute to the development of the Gulf region, especially in the fields of research and teaching. Having successfully earned a double major in Information Systems and Business Administration with a commendable Grade Point Average, Fatema is confident about the choice she made to study at CMU-Q in Qatar.
“I have spent four years here and I know that I could not have made a better choice,” she says. “I became more open-minded, articulate, and educated – I gained a lot on both a personal and educational level.”