Taghrid Samak of Berkeley Lab’s Computational Research Division admits with a laugh that she wasn’t one of those kids who started programming on the home computer at age 10. And if she hadn’t followed her father’s advice, she might have ended up looking for political solutions to pressing problems, rather than working on computational approaches to scientific challenges.
Q: There is a lot of discussion about increasing the number of women in computer science in the U.S. What was it like studying CS in Egypt?
A: In Egypt, when you go to any of the top three public universities, you either study medicine, pharmacology or engineering. Women have the same access as men, and about 30 percent of the people in the engineering program were women. So, I never felt I was in the minority until I came to the U.S. One of the advantages of studying computer science is that it is easier to find jobs than in some other fields. It is actually very convenient for women to be in computing, as many companies now adopt flexible work schedules.
Q: Did you ever get discouraged pursuing a degree in CS? What helped you keep going?
A: I never felt discouraged — I had always done well in math and science. We studied a number of different topics, and I often worked with friends and we asked each other for help. If I was better at math and a friend was better at programming, we’d help each other out. I think it was overwhelming for all of us at times.
Q: You’re doing a lot of outreach to other women in the Middle East who are interested in computing, such as the Tech Women program through the U.S. State Department. What’s that experience been like?
A: It’s felt like home because I’ve shared many of the same experiences as them. I know, when I first got here, I needed someone like me to talk to. It’s also been a reality check for me – these women are doing great work in their countries, despite everything that is going on. Hopefully they can fix some of the mistakes and messes.
To participate in the program, the women need to have at least two years of experience in a STEM field. Some of them have just completed two years and some are established leaders. They come here to learn about the culture of work, leadership and other skills — not so much technical aspects. And the mentors from the U.S. learn about other countries, both work and culture. The mentors learn from the mentees.
When I started at Berkeley Lab, I had only been in school. As I met all these women with different backgrounds and experiences, it made me realize I need to get out and do more, to volunteer and tutor students.
Q: You’ve tutored women (and men) students in Egypt — do you see much of yourself in them?
A: A little bit. The students are from the same school I was at and have the same advisors as my friends and I did. The students are really smart and a bunch of them are working with my past advisors. I’ve helped through one informal program, the Alexandria Summer of Coding, and a more formal program organized by the Egyptian chapter of IEEE. The students propose formal projects. I was able to help one of the students attend SC12, and now he has applied to graduate school.
Q: Did you have someone who reached out to you?
A: I was kind of independent. The teachers helped me, but I didn’t have any formal mentorships, as it’s not really part of our culture in Egypt. Our TAs were very helpful, stayed long hours and did an amazing job. They were very influential for me and most of my class, but they were often overwhelmed. Today, there are some mentoring programs and more people are helping each other.
Q: What advice would you give young women who are curious about computing but aren’t sure they want to make it a career?
A: Keep an open mind. Everything can be learned — really!
Jon Bashor is a communications manager at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.