I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd annual Heidelberg Laureate Forum in September. Modeled after the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, it brings together recipients of prestigious awards in mathematics and computer science and young researchers in those areas. A focus of the meeting was the role of mathematics and computer science in the developing world, and I talked to two women there who are working on projects to improve education and technology in some difficult areas. Rasha Osman, who is from Sudan, has a Ph.D. in computer science and is a Research Associate at Imperial College London. Amal Fahad, who is from Iraq, just defended her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Rochester, and she will join the Operating System Group in Microsoft as a Software Developer Engineer. This is an abridged and edited transcript of our conversation. It originally appeared as part of the interview series I have been writing for the Association for Women in Mathematics newsletter. You can read the rest of the interviews I've done for the AWM here. This is the first part of our conversation, and it focuses on the women's educational backgrounds and personal experiences adapting to a foreign culture. The second part of our conversation, which focuses on the programs they're working on to address the needs of their countries, as well as some of the misconceptions many people, myself included, have about the developing world, is here.

Evelyn Lamb: First off, How did you get interested in math and science and get encouraged (or not) to pursue it as a career?

Rasha Osman is a computer scientist from Sudan. Image courtesy of Rasha Osman.

Rasha Osman: My father is a computer scientist, so we’d do little science experiments. He wouldn’t exactly say that this is what I should do, but we’d do little experiments, problem solving, and so on. Plus, in Sudan, the stereotype is that if you’re smart, you go into engineering or medicine. To get into engineering and medicine, you have to do science. The smart students end up by default in the science classes, and the lower-level students end up in the humanities classes. You already knew, if you’re smart, that’s what you’re supposed to be. You can’t go to the humanities classes. If a smart student were to go to the humanities class, there’d be a problem. They’d call her parents in: “Why does she want to waste her life? She should be a doctor, she should be an engineer, be something!” It was already within the culture that if you’re smart, you have to do science.

Amal Fahad: For me, it was kind of similar. I have 8 siblings, and I’m the youngest. In Iraq, just like in most of the developing regions, the last year of high school, you do a test. Based on the results you get on the test, and based on what you’d like to do, these two factors decide where you will be going after. According to that, I was supposed to be a civil engineer.

But I have a brother who had just graduated from civil engineering, and it didn’t sound like something I’d like to do. At the same time, I had a sister who had just finished in computer science. So I decided to switch from engineering to science. Really, my sister was so enjoying the stuff that she was doing: programs, designing games. I thought it sounded really nice. So I decided to switch. When I started, I did face some difficulties, but it was fun.

The other thing is that if you graduated with a computer science degree, there were more job opportunities than other kinds of science, or even some engineering fields. So I had long-term planning in the sense that if I graduated with a computer science degree, I’d have better chances to go join someplace and start working right away. Those were my reasons to go into computer science.

EL: Did both of you do college in your countries and then grad school in a different country?

Amal Fahad is a computer scientist from Iraq. Image courtesy of Amal Fahad.

AF: Yes, I got my bachelor and master’s degrees [in Iraq]. I ranked first in the class [for the bachelor’s program], so when I graduated, I was able to immediately enter the master’s program, which is usually not the case. When I finished, I was given the privilege of teaching in the Baghdad University computer science department, which is the place where I studied and got my degrees. I taught for three or four years and then came to the states.

RO: I did my undergraduate at the University of Khartoum Faculty of Mathematical Sciences. I graduated also as the top student. Then, they had the honors degree, and if you were the top student, the vice chancellor would send you a letter asking you to join the university, instead of you applying. So I was hired as a teaching assistant.

At that time, there was no master’s program. I graduated in ’95, and in ’99 they decided to do a master’s program. I was working in the university, and I was working at a software company. I did a master’s and was promoted to a lecturer. I continued until 2006, so I taught about 10 years at the University of Khartoum, and then I went to do my Ph.D. at the University of Bradford in the UK.

EL: What was it like, moving to a different country to do that?

AF: Scary! Really scary! I don’t know how I did that, honestly. Every time I look back, it’s like, how could I actually dare to do something like this? I was actually sent to just take a training course in Harvard. It was supposed to be six months. So I thought, yeah, it’s going to be six months, it’s not a big deal. But I was traveling by myself, and it was my first time ever leaving the country, the first time going to the states.

I was so excited about being able to go to Harvard. It wasn’t something you get every day. I thought, yeah, I know it’s going to be difficult, but I can do it. I’m pretty lucky in the sense that I had a chance to get two years of training, moving from one system that’s way, way behind to another system that’s way up there. Those two years helped. I learned how to go along with the community, the new society, and I made friends. I kind of take things step by step.

Living wise, it was difficult to do at the beginning. It was so normal for people of different genders to live in the same place, and students share apartments. To me, it was like, no, I really can’t do that. So finding a place to stay was a nightmare. I was homeless for I think a week, moving from one place to another, until I was able to find an apartment that was affordable and was all girls. After that, going along with everything was easy. Harvard is a mix of everything. I really had a very wonderful experience there. The mentors I was working with used to invite me to their houses and introduce me to their families. I wasn’t a student, and I wasn’t a faculty member. I was kind of in the middle. It wasn’t clear to me which community or society I fit in. So they really were so great, in the sense that they tried to introduce me to as many people as they could. It was really so friendly and supportive.

EL: Did you also find a community of other Muslims like Rasha did?

AF: No, not really. I didn’t know that there were things like the Muslim Student Association. Then the people I was meeting got me connected with it. But that didn’t happen until three or four months in. By that time, I was aware of most of the stuff that I needed. Honestly, when I left Iraq, I pushed myself to meet foreigners and people from different communities. I don’t want to limit my network to people just from my own country. My English was so weak, and I wanted to practice speaking to people as much as I could. I was really trying to make new connections. That was what I was focused on. The people I met, they were so patient.

RO: You were lucky you weren’t a student. It’s impossible if you’re a student.

AF: Yes, I wouldn’t have been able to make it. My language at the beginning was really poor. I did sit in two or three classes, just auditing classes. That was one way I managed to practice. Because I knew what they were talking about, I just needed to know the terminology. That was something I was able to get from the classes

EL: What was the Harvard program you were doing?

AF: It was a training course for six months. They invited young researchers to do some kind of exchange experience. I remember when I first visited, I opened the computer and was able to connect to the internet. Wow, it was an amazing thing. In Iraq, we used to use dial-up, which is so slow. Then there was some discussion of having someone to design something for the wireless system for Baghdad University. I said, I’m here, I have the experience of using the internet there, and I’ve seen how the internet is there. I volunteered to take the project. I started working on that project with Professor Matt Welsh, who is currently at Google. We put a proposal together and submitted it to the World Bank, but that was 2006, and we couldn’t get the necessary funding. I remember we really worked so hard on that.

By that time, it was too tough to go home because 2006 and 2007 were so unstable. For me, being away in the states for almost two years, they wouldn’t believe that I was actually taking education training. They would think it was some other kind of training.

I applied to the Scholar Rescue Fund* program. It’s a program that supports scholarships for researchers in life-threatening conditions. They bring them from their own countries to the states and put them in one of the hosting universities to do their research. I got a scholarship from that program, and another scholarship from the dean of Harvard, and during that year, I continued my work on the Baghdad wireless thing. When we saw that we could not actually get it implemented, I started my preparation for the Ph.D. program. I applied and got accepted at Rochester with a full scholarship.

When I started the Ph.D program, I had already solved some of the problems that any person has when he or she moves from one community to another. Now I had to face another problem, which was getting used to the educational system. My first year, my performance was really, really bad. I think I can say it now, I can admit it, because I just got my Ph.D! I didn’t do well on the qualification exams. I was asked to leave the program with a master’s degree. I was like, no. I really felt that the difficulty, and my low performance, weren’t because I was stupid. It’s just that it was a completely new thing. We had to take four classes first semester, three classes second semester, and then, right after, the qualification exams. I had graduated a while ago, and I had kind of forgotten the background stuff. When I was studying these materials, I was actually catching up on the background things and learning new things. It was really a lot to take. So I submitted a petition. My advisor was so supportive. He said, I feel you are smart enough to pass it. It’s just a lot for you. I got a chance to redo my qualification exams, and I kind of redid my whole first year. The second time I took the test, I was able to pass all the exams successfully, and after the second year I continued everything the way it was supposed to be. So the transition was tough, due to the differences in the education system. With a little bit of time, I managed to pass it.

EL: How was it for you, Rasha? What was it like moving from Sudan to the UK?

RO: Fortunately for me, my uncle lived in the same town, in Bradford. So I knew where I was going to stay. The University of Khartoum didn’t fund me because the tuition and fees in Britain are very high. They said they’d prefer to pay either Malaysian or South African tuition. I said, I don’t want to go to Malaysia or South Africa. So I resigned and said I would go on my own. In most of northwest Yorkshire, in England, there’s a large Asian population, so it was basically like I was living in Pakistan. I didn’t feel I was in a non-Muslim country. I felt at home. I think if I had gone to London, I’d have run. I’m in London now, and it’s a completely different story. But Bradford was very nice. The students in the university were mostly from the middle east, so I didn’t even speak English in the labs. We were speaking Arabic.

Bradford was very nice, but London is a bit different. You do feel like a foreigner in London. But I adjusted. If it wasn’t for Bradford before, I would have left. It would be extremely difficult, you’d feel like you’d have to leave.

For the education system, Sudan has the same system, the British system. So it wasn’t big for me. If there was a Ph.D. in Sudan, it would be done the same way as the British system. I already knew what to expect. Most people [from Sudan] who did PhDs did them in the UK. So you already had the culture of what was in the UK and what the PhD looked like and things like that.

EL: Is Iraq’s education system somewhat similar to the US or the UK?

AF: No, no. It has its own system. And the thing is that, unlike in other places, the long wartime affected the education level. So all the people who were teaching were people who just got their master’s degree, like in my case. The system is so closed. So people graduate and start teaching and then go to their master’s degree, and start teaching, and then go to PhD, all locally. There was zero interaction with the outside world. The only PhD holder we had got her PhD in the UK. She got it in 1981, I think, and she was the only person with a PhD degree. It was good to have her, but she was the only one, and no matter how much she could try to improve, she wouldn’t be able to do it.

Read the second part of our interview here.

* This sentence was edited after publication to correct the name of the Scholar Rescue Fund.