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 second part of our conversation, and it 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. The first part of our conversation, which focuses on the women's educational backgrounds and personal experiences adapting to a foreign culture, is here.

EL: Both of you are involved in things to increase access to education and technology in the developing world. Can you talk a little bit about the programs you’re involved in?

Rasha Osman

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

RO: When I left Sudan, we had a problem in supervising PhDs and doing research in computer science. The idea is that you send someone to do a PhD, they come back, and they’re supposed to try to do research, but it never happened. There are about three professors who were the only people who could supervise, based on the regulations of the university. The others were all assistants. So it wasn’t very feasible. You can’t supervise the whole country.

They’ve tried more than one scheme to try to bring professors to visit and then go back, but it never seems to have worked. This time, they decided instead of moving the students and moving the professors, let’s use IC [information and communications] technology. It’s easier for the students, and it’s easier for the professors.

There’s a program at the Sudan University of Science and Technology that started about four years ago, and the idea is that the exams have to be in person at the university, and the evaluation with the supervisor has to be done in person at the university, but all other aspects can be done online. [You can watch a video about the program here.]

The students register at the Sudan University of Science and Technology. Some of them are residents of Sudan, some of them are from Saudi Arabia, and some are from neighboring countries. They come, say, in January, they register, and they get online access to web conferencing software, and they go back to wherever they are. They are taught about six courses. And they take the exams in June. So they all have to come to Khartoum in June. They have to pass to start the next phase. In the next phase, the supervisors all come from outside of Sudan and meet the students. So you give a one-hour presentation of your research area, what you’re going to teach in the next semester, what research they’re expected to do, and so on. Then the students sit and then they talk to you, and you discuss the subject and so on, and each student chooses two supervisors. In September, an online course begins and goes until December. In January, they come to Khartoum again, the students only, and take their exams, and they have to pass if they want to take a PhD with you. After that, you come in June again. The supervisors come every year once a year and then continue supervising online. I started this program with them in August, and I’m currently teaching a course online. I’m preparing them in the basics, reading papers and so on, and they’ll have an exam and a report to write, and based on that, I evaluate them and decide which students to work with in which areas.

Now they’ve graduated some students using this technique, and they have supervisors who have come again for more students. So it seems to be gaining traction. They have about 100 students now and 30 supervisors. I think it’s the first time that a PhD actually had structure in Sudan.

Another thing is that most of the students, when they apply their work, they do it on something in Sudan. So one lady did it on the banking system, using machine learning on banking data. Another did it, also on machine learning, on student applications to universities. So they’re actually doing something within Sudan.

I talked to a lady who finished, and she wants to start another project. There’s some agricultural data that needs to be input, first of all, into the computer, so they can look at it. It goes on for decades, and they came to the university and said, we have all this data, we want somebody to look at it. If this [PhD program] hadn’t happened, no one would have thought to do that. Now she knows she can take something out of this data. What’s happening to the wheat? What’s happening to the millet? They have a lot of data, but no one knows what’s happening. It’s almost like a breakthrough because nothing like that happened before. They’re having difficulty covering this program because they pay the supervisors in dollars, so you have to exchange the dollars and everything. They’re in the red, actually. This year they went to a local bank, and the bank agreed to sponsor five students for $4,000 each. Then they published in the newspaper that there’s a PhD program with five scholarships for the best students. It wasn’t based on financial need. They wanted to find the students who are smart. They did get very good students, and they are very proud of them. This is the first time there’s a scholarship for a PhD in Sudan. Usually they sponsor you to go out. It used to be they sponsored you because you needed the money. Now they sponsor you because you deserve the money, which is very good.

I think this is going to change the landscape of higher education in Sudan. There is a need for research in computer science. We have plenty of research in the other sciences, but computer science was a big issue. I think this is going to be a big help.

EL: And what is your project, Amal?

Amal Fahad

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

AF: I told you about the wireless project. Although that didn’t get funded, I couldn’t just let it go. Then I got a chance to go there [to Baghdad University].

I was working on networking. We wanted to build a test bed, which was a network that we built and used for our own testing. I was supposed to take some devices, small sized routers, basically the access points, from my university, the University of Rochester, and implement it in Baghdad University. I had to go through a lot of discussion and negotiation and bureaucratic issues, and at the end, it was, no, you can’t take any devices with you. Because it’s the property of the University of Rochester, so you can’t take it and leave it there and come back. So that was disappointing.

In the end, when I went to Iraq, I started with a site survey. I decided to implement a small scope of the whole university campus idea and just implement the first part of it. This is how we put it: OK, we’ll go with the first step, which is only one department and then expand it to a few departments in buildings that are near each other. And then go to the scope of the whole university. And if that works, we’ll go over multiple campuses in Baghdad. I was like, OK, I think I can start with the first part on my own. I started the site survey, which was basically checking signals and that kind of thing. You can’t just go and put up wireless signals and assume that they will agree with each other.

That was 2008. I ended up buying some stuff on my own. I did all the wiring and connections and that stuff. I had the first wireless network in the building. I remember when I sent the email to all the people who had helped, at Harvard and U of R. “Yay, this is the first email being sent from the new wireless network at Baghdad University!” I felt so relieved and proud of that.

I left these access points. I thought it wasn’t going to last, that the whole thing was going to collapse. But three years after, when I went again, I saw that these four routers were still working. People got convinced, and they duplicated the exact same idea across seven other buildings, so seven other buildings also got wireless connections. I was like, wow, I’m really impressed. I think I kind of gave them the incentive, so they could see that it was actually helpful and useful. Researchers and faculty members were able to use their machines for the first time and get internet connectivity from their offices. That was impossible before. The thing is that, in the university, you know that there’s always electricity. If you want to do any work, you go there, and the power is on. Once you leave and go home, there are frequently power shortages, so you cannot rely on getting the service from your own home. So I think by having the wireless, I managed to provide the connection to a lot of people who badly in need of it.

My research, the techniques that I built, the software and hardware that I designed in my research, it was all dedicated to improving internet connection to developing regions. I collected some data from the internet service provider who provided the service to Baghdad University and most of the city, most of the residential areas of Baghdad. I used this data to understand what are the factors and circumstances and how people are getting the service. Delay, bandwidth, and that stuff. After understanding the problem, we were able to design a technique to improve the internet service for them.

EL: The “hot topic” here at the HLF was on mathematics and computer science in the developing world. You’ve talked a little bit about some of the issues, but what do you see as the issues and the misconceptions that people who aren’t in the developing world might have about what needs to happen, or what would be the most effective.

RO: I think you need to allow people to identify their own problems. Most of the time, the UN sends a consultant, and he comes with a predefined notion of what the solution is. At the end, they’re the ones who decide. If it’s something funded, especially, it’s the international organization that decides what will work and what will not. This has led to lots of failed projects and lots of money that’s just gone to waste that could have been put to better things. Plus it allows people to have more self confidence and the ability to identify their own solutions. Because sometimes their solutions will look completely different because the environment is different, the culture is different.

Money is not the issue. There is money. But where’s the good idea? There is money, and they’re looking for an idea. When they don’t find it, they pour it into something because you just have to spend it.

Another issue is that there are some over magnified things. If you want to help someone, ask the person, what can I do for you? Instead of saying, here, here’s a water purifier. I may not need the water purifier. I’m OK with my water. It doesn’t make me sick. Maybe it makes you sick, but it doesn’t make me sick. The water running in the pipes in Sudan, people drink it, and it doesn’t make them sick. But if someone comes from outside and drinks it, they’ll get sick. It’s true.

The same thing, when you move to Europe [from Sudan], you will get the flu. It will almost kill you because you’re not ready for it. The same thing, if you move from one environment to another, you’ll catch the viruses you aren’t used to. It’s this whole assumption that this is bad, when it’s actually normal.

What looks like a poor sorry old hut, it could be he’s the richest person in the whole place. You don’t know what defines rich. People live in huts, but they own a thousand cows, so they’re very rich, and they know they’re rich. But they don’t want to sell the cows to buy a house or a car. They want the cows because that’s what defines money. You define money and power as something else, and you come and say, this is poor, and this is not good.

Accept that people are different. Try to help them with what they want, and listen to them. I think it will work better that way. The international organizations and politicians, if they would accept that people are different and know what works for them, things would be a lot better.

EL: Personally, what do you think some of the priorities are for Sudan, or should be for Sudan?

RO: For education?

EL: For education and development, specifically in science and technology.

RO: First of all, stability. Sudan was stable from 2000 to around the time the country split. There was a lot of economic stability. I was hired in 1996. In that time, the wages would come late because the government had no money. They’d come in the middle of the next month. And you’d take it, and it would basically evaporate from your hand because of inflation. And it’s like you don’t want to save money. You must spend it now because if you wait until tomorrow, you can’t buy the same thing. You have to spend it now. You can’t plan, you can’t buy, you can’t do anything. In 2000 when the economy stabilized, you could breathe. You could save money. You could open a bank account because it made sense. You could save money, you could buy houses, you could buy a car. I started a business. You could start planning. The minute you have instability, whether economic or political, whatever, people think, what do I have to protect? Nothing. Then you get problems. People lose hope. They stop thinking. If they’re very qualified, they run. This is how a brain drain happens. During those 10 years of stability, people were coming back. Now they’re starting again to leave the country, people with PhDs. I’ve watched this. It’s incredible. I’m living the same thing twice. It usually never happens that you live to see the same thing twice. I’m seeing it all over again.

AF: I think the same thing in Iraq. The unstable condition is preventing people from long-term planning. Probably if things get better, one thing that might be helpful is if these big software companies can open branches there, they can give people the incentive that if you’re good enough, you might end up being hired by these companies. People need some encouragement. But you can’t ask Google to go and open an office there. No way. I don’t expect any improvement in the short term just because of what’s happening.

I agree with Rasha. You can’t go with a specific mindset and assume that this is actually the way it is. If you go and donate money, this is the worst thing ever because it ends up vanishing. I remember we used to hear that so and so donated this amount of money when I was a faculty member. But nothing ever reached the universities themselves because it’s just absorbed. So money is not an issue. My country is so rich. If we could understand how to manage our own resources, we would be able to be self-sustaining. The instability is the main source of all the problems.

The other thing is that unlike other countries, for example if you talk about Afghanistan, women in Iraq are more than welcome to go to school and get an education. Yes, in rural areas, you’ll see girls who finish their primary school and then end up getting married. Their priorities are different. But if you go to cities, you have all the chances to finish the degree if you are willing. Schools are free, colleges are free, even grad level is all free. if you want, you can definitely pursue your education.

I remember once I was at an exhibition. This guy asked me, “so, did you get your education after you came to the states?” I said, I’m sorry if this is going to disappoint you, but actually I got my master’s degree when I was in Iraq. “But I thought that…” Yeah, I know, but you have to know that different countries are different. In Iraq, the percentage of women in computer science or these high-tech fields is probably even higher than men. I remember, in the classes I used to teach, 75% of the class were girls. Almost always the top ranks of the class were girls. It’s kind of divided: girls go to science, and boys go to engineering. Engineering is highly dominated by guys, and science is highly dominated by girls.

RO: There’s a problem in how they [westerners] think women are treated. There’s this idea that outside of certain regions, there’s a women problem. In Sudan, if there’s a boy’s school, there’s a girl’s school. Always. You have to open both schools.

AF: Yes, absolutely. In some of the places, when you cannot afford to open two schools, one for boys and one for girls, you end up with two shifts. For example, guys will go in the morning, and girls will go in the afternoon.

RO: I was in the US when I was a child, and when I went to Sudan, it was nicer. You don’t get boy bullying and all that stuff. Girls are very competitive, they’re very smart, they’re very sharp. Now universities are 50-50 across the board. This PhD program is 50% women, 50% men. Earlier, there was a problem. When they started in 2000 sending people outside of Sudan, some people had children. They couldn’t go, they were not willing to take them. So some of the women stayed. And the guys came back with PhDs, and they were assistant professors.

I was sitting under them. I remember a professor who taught me earlier. He said, “Listen here, you’re better than them. If you don’t go get yourself a PhD, they’re going to be your bosses, and you’ll never move up. Don’t think that they’re going to respect you because you taught them.” I taught half of Sudan because it was the only computer science department in Sudan for a very long time. He said to me, “They’re going to come, and they’re going to treat you like they’ve never seen you before, that you never taught them, that you’re not older than them. Go get yourself a PhD.” I was shocked. I didn’t want to leave Sudan. I was trying to figure out how to do the PhD in Sudan. It was just, there was no possibility because I didn’t like the quality I was seeing. I thought I was better than that. But lots of women were stuck, who couldn’t go out. It’s like a missing generation. This program is perfect: You can sit at home while the kids go to school, open your laptop, and work. No need to go out.

There’s a misconception about women. I was surprised in the UK how women were treated. You could feel in the department: stay down. You feel they’re not respected like their male colleagues. I’ve never felt that in Sudan. I had to work, but I walk in, sit down, and get to work. No one demeaned me because I was a woman. They need someone to do the job. It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman.

EL: Is there anything else you wanted to mention?

AF: You asked in the email about religion, about wearing the scarf. I think that’s something important on my side. I’ve really felt like it’s a bonus for me. I’ve never felt that i’ve been discriminated against just because I’m wearing a scarf. It wasn’t ever the case. As a matter of fact, it’s helped a lot. People do respect it. There are always crazy people, but the crazy people are everywhere. In general, it was so helpful. People saw my style, my costume, and started treating me based on that.

If I didn’t wear it before, I might have started wearing it there. This morning, I had this discussion with someone who said, “Did you know you can take it off?” It’s not like someone asked me to put it on! This is how I am. I love the way people are understanding and respecting that. It wasn’t a problem at all.

EL: Really. That’s kind of surprising because you hear about that kind of discrimination.

AF: Absolutely. But from my own experience, it wasn’t a problem at all. Probably because of the community I’m dealing with, all highly educated people.

RO: Universities are diverse. You already expect to see different people and different cultures.

AF: As a matter of fact, I was teaching them a lot. This is something about the USA: they are so open minded and so willing to learn about other people’s cultures, other people’s education systems. I would have long conversations with a lot of people. Sometimes people I didn’t even know. The moment I say I’m from Iraq, that’s going to start a conversation right away. [Editor's note: I—and this interview—can attest to this fact.]

RO: Same as Sudan.

AF: I wanted to mention that just to be fair to all the people who have been so supportive and so nice.

EL: That’s encouraging to hear because you often hear the opposite. I guess “People were nice to somebody” doesn’t really make the news.

AF: Absolutely. If everything is good and life is happy, it’s no news. I really appreciated all the people who I’ve dealt with. It’s been wonderful.

RO: When I was going the UK, people [in Sudan] asked, “What are you going to do? They’re going to beat you up on the street.” There’s a misconception on the other side because all you see is the negativity. They think, Muslim women are beat up on the streets, so be careful.

AF: Yes. In Iraq, they say, “Oh, you are going to those cruel Americans.” No, they are nice!

EL: Thank you so much.

AF: Thank you. It was really so nice to share.

Read the first part of our interview here.