Iman Awaad, Egyptian pioneer in robotic technology - File Photo
CAIRO – 29 November 2017: A robots mastermind and a dedicated wife and mom of two sons, Iman Awaad is an inspiration for women in search of their dreams, and proof that it’s never too late. Smart, warm and optimistic, Awad is on a mission to make the world a better place through robotic technology; a field she became a research associate in at Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg university in Germany where she lectures and advises MA students.
At first glance, Awaad seems to have had a clearly mapped-out path for herself. But on closer examination, it is evident it wasn’t coincidence that led to her extraordinary career in robotics, but her determination, confidence and self-belief. Life gave Awaad, now 40, a second chance to pursue her dream; and it wasn’t until 10 years after her graduation and the birth of her two sons, now 20 and 14, that she embarked on a career in trobotics research at the age of 29.
Awaad’s fascination for all things sci-fi began when she was a young girl n the 1980s, starting with TV shows like Transformers. “When I grew up, it was all about robots that flew in space or transformed. It was a good time to want to be a scientist as a child,” she says. A book lover, her biggest discovery was Isaac Asimov’s stories. “The themes of science, exploration and robots for the good of all life not just mankind were irresistible.”
At 16, Awaad started university where she planned to study finance; a safe option at the time. While at Rutgers University, she stumbled upon a course called “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.” “I just wanted to take it,” she tells Egypt Today. “It was a dream come true. All the fictional robots I had ever encountered seemed suddenly possible to create in real life.” She then switched majors to computer science to take the course.
Three years later, she received her bachelor’s degree at the age of 19 and married soon after. Their first son was born the following year. Her husband’s career opportunity led the family to move to Bonn in 1997. “It seemed like the natural progression to my life...to be there for the children as they grow up and for my husband...For me, that is where my own personal happiness comes from,” Awaad says.
While building a life in Germany, it was important for Awaad to remain true to her heritage. The daughter of diplomats says that “Having grown up around the world, we had learned how to maintain our Egyptian values and traditions abroad.” She enjoys sharing those experiences with her German friends. “I love to share our culture and food with them.”
But it wasn’t until 10 years later that a coincidence resulted in Awaad’s second chance. One day her husband surprised her with the news that he had found an incredible opportunity for her; an international master’s program in autonomous systems at Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg, a university of applied sciences. At first, Awaad was overcome with doubt. “I was actually terrified,” she says. “I thought it’s been 10 years since I’d gotten my bachelor’s.” Awaad didn’t believe she’d get admitted into the program. The family sat around the dining table and discussed the opportunity. They agreed it could work, she applied and was admitted.
Awaad was blessed with a supportive husband and family. She also had a network of friends who made the transition easier. Even so, juggling family life and her coursework was a struggle. Awaad found the math difficult and it was an emotional experience being away from her children. “It took a lot of stamina because it was a lot of work,” she recalls. “I remember crying during the first couple of weeks of my studies because it was so difficult; my husband suggested that if I was unhappy, I should simply quit,” she says. “I only considered quitting for 10 seconds or so because it was distressing to think about the message I would be sending our older son if I did; that it is okay to quit when things get tough, even when it is in pursuit of something you love.”
Awaad persevered. “I worked so hard that not only did I not fail, I finished top of the class,” she says proudly. Her thesis, a joint effort with her friend Beatriz León, was awarded best thesis in computer science by her university in 2008.
Was it challenging to be in a male-dominated field? “Yes, I think it is. I think it’s really a perception of the field that stops more females from joining it,” she says. “The field is perceived as something that is cold and that you can’t really help people.” Awaad also believes that once women are in such fields, they work extremely hard to close any gaps perceived by themselves or others in their knowledge.
Since completing her MA, Awaad has been employed part-time at the university where she is the assistant director and study advisor of the program. She also teaches and supervises master’s students and is now working on her PhD to enable robots to intelligently and autonomously substitute missing or unavailable objects to carry out tasks in a domestic environment. She is a member of the university’s RoboCup team which has won numerous awards over the years. The technology developed by such projects is geared toward personal domestic and assistive robots.
Asked how she feels about the potential darker side of robotics, Awaad replies, “I’m an optimist by nature as well as a Star Trek fan. I think that any tool can be used in a way that can be helpful or harmful. If we believe humanity is inherently good, then we will do what needs to be done, such as push for the banning of the use of robots on battlefields. Science and technology should be means to improve our lives; all lives. Whether it’s through medical robotics or robotics in education. It’s about making the world a better place.”
What advice does she give women in pursuit of their dreams? “Most importantly, make sure you know what it is you really want and where it fits in with your priorities. Once this is clear, then confidently ask for what you want. Continue to ask even in the face of the fear of someone answering you with a ‘no.’ Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Fighting gender based violence and discrimination can take many forms, including highlighting and documenting female role models who challenged stereotypical gender roles. Doing this normalizes women’s presence in sectors recognized as “male only fields” and betters perceptions of successful female entrepreneurs. This article is part of Egypt Today’s campaign “Break the Silence ... Say No to Violence” marking the 16-Day campaign of activism against gender-based violence GBV from November 25 to December 10.