Woman Science Award Winner On Breaking Into A Man's Field

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Tue, 19 Jan 2016 - 10:03 GMT

Research scientist Nashwa El Bendary, winner of the Regional L’Oreal UNESCO for Women in Science award, shares the secret to becoming a successful woman in a man’s field.

By Farah El Akkad

Choosing a career in an industry dominated by males is never an easy decision for any woman, particularly in Egypt. Nashwa El Bendary decided to break that mold and pursue a career as a research scientist in the field of IT — and it has paid off. Last October El Bendary was chosen for the Regional L’Oreal UNESCO for Women in Science Award for her groundbreaking work on agriculture and climate change. El Bendary’s research uses computer science and computational intelligence to monitor the impact of climate change on agricultural crops and automating crops ripeness to ensure early disease detection.

“Not many women would choose a male-dominated career because it is usually very time consuming,” says El Bendary. Egyptians still believe that a woman’s only role is to be responsible for the house, so as soon as she gets married she has to give up her career dreams. People need to be aware that some women can actually do both, we need to shed some light on them.”

The L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women and Science fellowship focuses on women’s achievements in the Arab world. To recognize and help more women achieve the success they desire, L’Oréal-UNESCO created a regional branch of the award: the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Levant and Egypt Fellowships 2015. “This fellowship aims to provide five women of the region with the funds they need in order to continue their research,” El Bendary says.

Born in Cairo in 1979 and majoring in information technology at the faculty of computers and information at Cairo University, El Bendary has always been deeply interested in computer systems. “The credit goes to my family,” she explains. “I always remember as a child the feeling of wanting to know exactly how computers work. I also had a great passion for mathematics, which goes hand in hand with science.”

As she grew older, El Bendary’s passion for solving problems creatively grew as her interest in computer games deepened, enhancing her creative thinking skills to utilize computer systems in problem solving. “My interest in computing as well as ICT in general developed over the years, motivating me to study ICT on a more advanced and scientific level,” El Bendary says.

Having “focused on developing algorithms and software programs to solve problems in a creative manner and think outside the box” as an undergraduate, El Bendary went on to obtain a Ph.D in the same field in 2008. Today she is an associate professor and head of the Business Information Systems department at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport and is also currently the vice chair of the Scientific Research Group in Egypt.

But El Bendary would never have gotten to where she is today without the support of her family, friends and coresearchers. “It is unfortunate that not all working women receive this kind of support. In my opinion, the main reason women are under-represented in scientific research and particularly in the field of computer science is that historically and culturally women have been chosen for typically lower-paying yet fulfilling jobs like teaching or nursing, whereas their male counterparts, sometimes considered family providers, choose highpaying careers like computer science and engineering.”

The researcher explains that her field is extremely challenging. “You either discover something and make a difference, or at least help the person who decides to research the same thing as you but it is never easy,” says El Bendary who is currently working with a multi-disciplinary scientific research group on developing various humanitarian solutions through the application of computer science. “My team uses computer science and computational intelligence to develop Information and Communication technologies (ICT)-based applications to provide intelligent and novel technological solutions for environmental problems, especially in Egypt.”

El Bendary’s current project uses intelligent technologies to monitor water quality and pollution. The end target is to propose more creative and userfriendly solutions to enhance and facilitate people’s quality of life in Egypt and other developing countries where agriculture and water quality are one of the most significant aspects of economic growth.

“Water and food are always at the top of the country’s list of priority needs. Therefore, I started focusing on using my field of expertise in aiding water and food security. My research aims to develop an automatic tool or a platform that can help local farmers in determining the best harvesting timing to decrease the loss in products, increase financial income as well as secure a larger yield and better quality of food,” El Bendary explains.

The recognition part of the system is based on an automated approach for fruits and vegetable ripeness measurement and evaluation via investigating and classifying the different maturity and ripeness stages. The affordability, costeffectiveness, and sustainability of the proposed system have been studied and approved against the need for manpower, not only for big farmers but also for small/medium farmers. In addition, El Bendary stresses that the proposed system provides extension services via enabling viewing images and local environmental data in addition to analyzing them over time in a non-destructive way and without any additional effort, “thus organizations can support their farmers and customers by giving access to a platform where data for different plots are available, thus allowing better forecast of crop status,” she adds.

The L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women and Science fellowship has supported El Bendary’s project with scientific followup and guidance, as well as financing. The researcher also believes the top reason the project was acknowledged by the committee is due to its relevance to the region’s primary needs. “This award represents a great recognition to a woman’s contribution to the field of multidisciplinary ICT applications in the agricultural domain that is tightly related both to the food security and sustainable economic development issues,” says El Bendary whose message to Egyptian women, especially young researchers, is “to stay determined in order to overcome all the obstacles that come your way. Never mind the overt biases that militate against your decision to pursue a scientific career.”

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