An Egyptian woman excels at robotic technology
By Youssra el-Sharkawy
Growing up, Iman Awaad fell in love with science fiction TV shows and movies like Transformers. Her love stayed with her into adulthood, and she decided to study robotic technology, a field which is described by some people as hard for women.
Awaad is an Egyptian who is currently a research associate at the Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University, in Germany where she lectures and advises MA students.
“When I was growing up, I was immersed in shows and films about robots that flew in space or were transformed. As a child, I wanted to be a scientist,” Awaad told The Egyptian Gazette.
She received her bachelor’s degree in computer science at the age of 19 in Egypt, then her husband’s career took the family to Bonn, Germany in 1997. There, she completed her studies in the field of robotic science.
After completing her Master’s (MA) degree, Awaad took up a part-time post at the Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University, where she is the assistant director and study adviser of the robotic science programme. She also teaches and supervises MA students; and she is now working on her PhD, whose subject is how to enable robots intelligently and autonomously to replace missing or unavailable devices, and to carry out tasks in a domestic environment.
“I never considered that I would be able to work with robots, simply because they only seemed to appear in fiction – even during my Bachelor’s studies in the early 90s. There was no “robotics” course at the time,” she explained.
Being a woman in a male-dominated field like the robotics field was a challenge for Awaad.“It is a challenge that many women, and especially those in male-dominated disciplines such as the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths disciplines, (STEM), have to deal with all over the world. There was the difficulty of the topic itself,” she told The Gazette.
Being a mother, was another challenge for her.“The challenge was pursuing my degree while at the same time taking care of my family, as I had been doing when I was a stay-at-home mother,” she said.
However, Awaad believes that Egyptian women can achieve anything they want.“I believe that it is no more challenging for Egyptian women than any other person, man or woman,” she said.
Leaving her country was not an easy choice, but Awaad holds it close, in her heart. “It is of course always difficult to be away from family and loved ones, and to be away from one’s country and compatriots. My husband and I both grew up moving around so we knew how it would be, as did our families. That said, we all feel very excited and extremely happy when we spend holiday time in Egypt,” she said.
Being an Egyptian woman living in Germany, Awaad said that she has not faced any discrimination, what she found was a welcoming atmosphere.
“I did not face any discrimination. It helped that we have always had amazingly helpful neighbours who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. I think there is a difference between integration and acculturation. We have integrated into the society, to the extent of living and working in Germany happily and well. We have maintained our own Egyptian values, beliefs and culture, though. For example, when we are unable to celebrate a birthday on the designated date, we have no problem celebrating it earlier, which is totally unacceptable in German culture due to superstition,” she explained.
Awaad, who moved to Bonn in 1997, has the aim of enabling the developing countries to benefit from her knowledge of robotic technology, to achieve more scientific progress.
“I would like not only to put all my knowledge at the disposal of Egypt’s scientific progress, but also to mobilise my networks to make a difference to the broader community of developing countries, in ways that can help them to achieve their development goals,” she said
“I would like to see robotic technology being used for the good of humankind, and becoming accessible and affordable enough to be used by every society, without discrimination. I want to assess which of the challenges facing our country could potentially be addressed via robotics technology,” she told The Gazette.
She added: “The great thing is that the field is highly diverse and interdisciplinary. Whether it is deploying low-cost drones or large-scale sensor networks, to survey fields under cultivation, in order to make better-informed decisions, or to provide health services to people living in remote areas; the possibilities really are endless.”
“There have been incredible advances in recent times in Artificial Intelligence (AI), on which researchers rely for the intelligence necessary to enable autonomy in robots. The possibility to offer services which use AI approaches are also endless, especially in a well-connected population such as ours, in which the use of mobile phones is all-pervasive, as is the skill of using all their features!” she said.