The Australian National University (ANU) is addressing underrepresentation of women in computing through a new Pioneering Women Program. We spoke to inaugural scholarship recipient Sumayya Ziyad about the award, her study journey and path to ANU.
Sumayya Ziyad’s elder sisters were the first women on her mother’s side of the family to go to university.
“It’s improving now, but traditionally in the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, females are not pushed to study, they end up taking on a more home role,” she said.
Ms Ziyad is a scholarship recipient in the inaugural round of the Pioneering Women Program (PWP) at The Australian National University (ANU).
Spring weather arrived in Canberra not long after Ms Ziyad did in late August this year. But “freezing” temperatures and brief bouts of homesickness dampened her early weeks here as she went about choosing an apartment, furnishments, and a parka.
She loved exploring the sprawling lakeside campus.
“There are a lot of women around and even holding academic positions. It's very interesting to see,” Ms Ziyad said.
Among the first people she met were Chunyi Sun, a PWP scholar and PhD candidate like herself, and Dr Xiaoyu Sun (no relation), the first recipient of the Pioneering Women Lectureship.
The program, which is accepting applications for its second round of grant funding until 6 November 2023, supports the careers of female higher degree research students and staff at the ANU School of Computing.
“One of the goals of the program is to foster a community of women to alleviate the effects of isolation, and to demonstrate to others that this community exists,” said Professor Amanda Barnard, AM FRSC FAIP, who chairs the program.
“Chunyi and Sumayya will inspire women considering higher degree research studies with us, and Xiaoyu to inspire future tenure track applicants.”
Ms Ziyad’s PhD research will seek ways to optimise speed, privacy and security when handling massive data sets coming from different sources.
Grateful for my fall
Ms Ziyad’s journey would be taking a very different path if not for a humiliating failure that altered the course of her life.
In Sri Lanka, graduating high schoolers have a gap year during which they await results from Advanced Level exams and (hopefully) acceptance letters from the schools to which they have applied.
Parents urge their children to enter engineering and medicine, Ms Ziyad said, because they are considered the most promising and prestigious fields.
“They have the fame and name,” she said.
Her older sisters aced their exams (one engineering, one medicine) and were accepted at two of Sri Lanka’s top universities, to great fanfare within their large extended family and among family friends.
Meanwhile, Ms Ziyad had chosen medicine over engineering.
“But when I started studying bioscience, I think I understood that it was not for me,” she said. “I prefer finding something that interests me rather than going with the norm.”
When she received poor results in her exams, she was painfully aware that she had shocked and disappointed all the people who love her most.
She kept a low profile and even skipped family gatherings to avoid unsolicited advice on how to do a better on her next exam, which would be 7 months away.
“I hid. Boy, did I hide!” she said. “I didn't want to hear about what I could do or should do. I had already learnt my lesson.”
She decided to swap medicine for computer science and began brushing up on maths and English proficiency for a different aptitude exam.
“There was a lot of motivation to prove people wrong,” she said.
She redeemed herself by scoring well in her exam and being accepted into University of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s top university.
Her inner drive stayed with her as she earned First Class Honours in Information Systems, graduating with a 3.98/4.0 GPA and the Gold Medal for the most outstanding graduate among 320 students.
“Looking back, I think I'm grateful for that fall because if I had breezed in as my sisters did, I wouldn't have valued certain things as much as I do right now. So, probably it was a blessing in disguise.”
Ms Ziyad said she is grateful for the support of her family, in particular her sisters who broke barriers and her mother and father who encouraged their daughters as well as their son to pursue higher education.
Her sisters are 100 per cent happy for her, she said, having supported her at every step, from politely redirecting conversations at family gatherings during her darker days, to celebrating when she received the scholarships that made it possible to pursue her PhD at ANU.
“I think now that I'm here and I moved out of our home and away from Sri Lanka, I think I opened opportunities for them, just as they did for me.”
Pushed from the nest by political upheaval
Ms Ziyad completed her undergraduate degree 18 months ago, just as a severe economic crisis, food and energy shortages, and mass protests led to the resignation of Sri Lanka’s president.
“Because of the economic as well as social situation in the country, a lot of people looked to migrate. So, we had a lot of postgraduate opportunities being posted around to help people if they wanted to move to a different country.”
“One day I was tired after work and I thought, why not give it a try?”
She found a research supervisor — Emeritus Professor Peter Christen — via an acquaintance who had studied at ANU. After four months working together remotely, they applied for Australian Government Research Training Program scholarship (RTP) round, and learned in May that they had been successful. During the process, Professor Christen brought the Pioneering Women Scholarship to her attention.
The scholarship funding and the recognition that comes with the PWP award gave her confidence as she began her first venture out of Sri Lanka and, indeed, out of her parents’ home.
Ms Ziyad hasn’t even met Emeritus Professor Christen in person yet — he is currently abroad — but she is making friends, settling in, and brimming with excitement and confidence that she is on the right path.
Finding and filling research gaps
The precise focus of Ms Ziyad’s PhD research is yet to be determined, but it will be situated in a computer science domain known record linkage.
“Say you have a database coming from entity A and you want to link it with entity B,” Ms Ziyad explained. “You need to identify whether there are common data points that duplicates and things like that.”
Handling enormous data sets, ensuring privacy, and improving efficiency are three of the priorities, she said.
“Although such things can be explained in very simple terms, in the field of computing it is very, very complicated.”
Ms Ziyad is now embarking on a 6 to 7 month reading period, during which she will review the most recent innovations and most influential research, then “find a research gap and pick it up”.
Asked for a practical example of the use of record linkage in industry, Ms Ziyad cited the medical field.
“Say you have two hospitals in different regions, and you want to identify whether you have patients who have been treated in both,” she said. “The hospital employees should not be privy to private information. So, each hospital would need to encrypt the raw data before sending it to a common point (linkage unit).”
“Efficiency is important, because for instance there is a legal matter, you cannot be waiting for months and months to process the entire database.”
Equally important is cybersecurity.
Prior to her arrival at ANU, Ms Ziyad had been working with Emeritus Professor Christen and the team on a new encryption technique that can be used to better mask raw data before sharing it for the record linkage process.
“In the domain, they have all kinds of attack methods that could compromise the privacy of data. So, we try to identify new encryption techniques that allow record linkage to happen without hinderance, while also making sure third parties cannot exploit existing attack methods on the process.”