Celebrating International Women’s Day - interview with Azza Ahmed and Andrea Storås

On the occasion of International Women’s Day and this year's theme “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” we have talked with two of our female researchers to celebrate women’s contributions to the field and promote more diversity and inclusivity.

Poster for international women's day

For the sixty-seventh session of the Commission on the Status of Women this year’s priority theme is “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls” (unwomen.org). The UN Women Gender snapshot report for 2022 show that globally, women make up just 19.9% of science and engineering professionals. 

In SimulaMet, and the Simula group overall, we actively strive to better balance the proportion of men and women in ICT research. By 2028 Simula aims to have 40 per cent of the work force filled by women. 

It is also important to raise awareness around the contributions that women are making to the field today. We have interviewed two of our female researchers on the work that they are doing and their thoughts on this year’s theme: Azza Ahmed, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Resilient Networks and Applications (CRNA), and Andrea Storås, PhD student at the department of Holistic Systems (HOST).

Making a positive impact on the world through research 

Azza has a Bachelor's degree in Communication Engineering from the University of Khartoum where she graduated with honors. After completing her undergraduate degree, she pursued a Master's degree in Computer Science from the University of Nottingham. She recently completed her PhD degree from OsloMet University  where she focused on applying artificial intelligence and machine learning methods in solving networking problems and automating the network management tasks. She is currently working as a Postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Resilient Networks and Applications (CRNA) at SimulaMet.

What inspired you to pursue a career within that field? 

– Since my childhood, I have had a strong passion for science and technology. I had enjoyed the math classes in school and enjoyed the process of discovery and problem-solving. I also believe through my current research activities I can make a positive impact on the world, more specifically the future generation of networks. 

What do you consider your greatest achievements? 

– I believe my biggest achievement is assuring the balance between my responsibilities as a parent and my academic pursuits. Balancing the demands of parenthood with research activities can be challenging. As a mother of three children, I believe I have excellent time management skills. This helps me to succeed with my PhD journey and publish in prestigious research venues. 

What is a typical working day like for you?

– In the first part of the day with a fresh mind, I spend some time writing research papers. It may also involve reading and reviewing the literature to stay up to date with the latest trends in the field. After that I attend meetings with team members;  brainstorming and discussing progress made on ongoing research projects. My working day ends with developing/testing new algorithms or models to solve a particular problem. This may also include running experiments, analyzing results and writing reports.  

What is it like working as a woman in a field that is overrepresented by men?

– In general, women in male-dominated fields can experience bias that negatively influences their progress and participation. While sometimes I feel isolated as we are only two women in my team or department, it is important to remember that there are supportive colleagues who can help create a positive working environment.

Do you have any advice for other women wanting to pursue a career in tech research?

– Working as a woman in a field that is overrepresented by men like STEM can be challenging, but also rewarding. Here is some advice that may help other women when starting their research career in STEM: 

  1. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself and don't let gender bias or discrimination hold you back.
  2. Find mentors who can support and guide you through your career in STEM research.
  3. STEM research can be demanding, so it is important to find ways to maintain work-life balance. 

Azza has also written about the women’s fight for their rights in Sudan in Panorama nyheter for this year’s International Women’s Day (panoramanyheter.no - article in Norwegian).

Diving into machine learning models for healthcare applications 

Andrea is a pharmacist by training, and her master’s thesis focused on developing a model for personalized treatment of kidney transplanted patients. She is currently taking a PhD in computer science at OsloMet, and working with the department of Holistic Systems at SimulaMet. The topic of her thesis is explainable AI (XAI) in medicine. 

What inspired you to pursue a career within that field? 

– The reason I switched field from pharmacy to computer science is because AI has the opportunity to solve a lot of tasks in medicine, ranging from drug discovery to optimizing treatments for patients. I therefore wanted to learn how to apply AI on medical data. Moreover, it is important to explain how the AI models work to healthcare personnel, since these models are typically complex and difficult to understand. What motivates me is that I have the chance to contribute to get transparent AI models into the clinic, which could lead to faster diagnoses and better treatments of patients.

What are you working on right now?

– Right now, I develop an AI model for diagnosing eye diseases from images of the eyes and try to get insight into the model using an XAI method. This XAI method measures how much the model reacts to specific concepts when making predictions. Concepts can be described as topics or themes, such as stripes or, in my case, medical findings. The user can decide herself what these concepts should be, which makes the XAI method flexible and user-friendly. It will be exciting to see how healthcare personnel experience these types of explanations compared to explanations generated by more established XAI methods.

What do you consider your biggest achievements?

– Taking a PhD in XAI in medicine is what I consider my biggest achievement so far. I am grateful for getting this opportunity, since I don’t have a heavy technical background. This would of course not have been possible without the support and help from my supervisors and the rest of my colleagues in the department of holistic systems. 

What is a typical working day like for you?

– Because I am a PhD student, I am mostly free to organize the working day as I want. Consequently, my days are varied and never boring. Some typical tasks are writing and running code for my experiments, writing manuscripts for scientific journals and conferences, attending meetings with collaborators and reading up on relevant literature. Several times a year, I also travel to conferences for presenting my research. This is something I enjoy a lot, since I get to meet other researchers from my field, learn about their research projects and see new places.

What is it like working as a woman in a field that is so overrepresented by men?

– My personal experience is that the community is inclusive and wants to make computer science an attractive area for women to work in. I usually don’t think about gender imbalance at work and focus on my work and development as a researcher. 

Do you have any advice for other women wanting to pursue a tech research career?

– I would just go for it! Since technology is everywhere in society, you get a lot of opportunities by taking a career in tech. It’s easy to get a job, and I think the focus on gender balance makes being a woman in tech an advantage rather than a burden. My impression is that more women are entering the field, so if you are worried about ending up working with only men, I don’t think that would be an issue.