Breath of Fresh Air: Diversity Heroes – Amani Boughalmi

As a community, we embrace our diversity; diversity makes us better, stronger. We cannot do enough to applaud all of our heroes in their diversity.  They are people who are ACM members, volunteers or experts in their field.  Starting from this June, we have been talking with a number of heroes about their tech career journey, about their perspective on intersectionality and reflect on initiatives for equality.

This month’s guest is Amani Boughalmi. Amani works as a volunteer in the ACM-W Europe team as part of the celebrations working group.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What was your inspiration, the driving force that led you to study and work in computing?

I am Amani Boughalmi; I am  27 years old and from Tunisia. I’m a machine learning research engineer, highly interested in delivering AI-based solutions for improving human wellbeing. I am the older and the only sister of my brother, which had a significant impact on my personality, making me act as a very responsible and supportive role model in all stages of my life. I consider myself an ambitious woman willing to offer novel solutions for different life challenges.

I find the field of computing very inspiring. It feeds my curiosity by making me always think where technology might take us next so that I can be at the cutting edge.  One of my career goals is to make a lasting impact on the world and others’ lives. I believe I found an excellent way to achieve it by technology. 

Finally, my ambition is to travel the world as part of my career; there is no career better in computing to serve as my ticket.

What has been your career highlight? What are you most proud of?

I am the co-founder Alz-x, which is an innovative computer-aided diagnosis system focused on the detection and characterisation of the grade of Alzheimer’s disease based on MRI images processing. It was my idea, which I worked on as a graduation project in my senior year at college; after that, I continued developing it as a separate project in one of  Elgazala Smart Tunisian Technoparks as a  startup. 

The process to be successful in delivering such an essential humanitarian goal was very long. However, the results were fantastic with a high level of precision which will help doctors in diagnosing this disease with less effort.

Finally, I am proud that I won many prizes with Alz-x. I participated in the Startup rally, which is a very exciting and challenging national competition, I had to pitch the idea with a robust proof-of-concept.  My project came 2nd place in this national competition for its impact on health and its technical feasibility. By February 2019, I won the first prize of the scientific posters competition of the International Forum on e-Health by Réalités Magazine. It was an opportunity to explain the scientific approach and technical aspects behind my innovations.

What challenges have you faced?  Were you able to overcome them? How?

We always face challenges. To overcome my challenges, I always ask myself why I started doing what I do. I focus on my goal and remember the time and effort it took to reach this step.

I recently faced one of my biggest challenges so far. It was at the height of COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, I lost my dream job, and I had to find another one during these very tough times. Indeed, the current economic situation is serious, and the future of the country’s pandemic response and the economy is uncertain.

But I am just focusing on what I can control. So, I got a job as an Artificial Intelligence trainer in an engineering training centre during the weekends. I am genuinely enjoying sharing my knowledge and helping others get started in the AI world. My current job may not be a perfect replacement for what I once had, but it helps me get through a difficult time and put me in a better financial position going forward.

I believe that in the coming months and years, opportunities will return, though possibly with some adjustments. Until that happens, I am taking steps to sharpen my skills and keep searching for a remote job because these types of jobs can expand my employment options beyond my immediate area. 

If you were to change something in the way we run tech communities and networks, what would you change?

Celebrating women in computing in a lively and dynamic setting serves to promote computing and inspire. I appreciate the initiative of womENcourage by ACM-W Europe. It helps me get in touch with many people from different countries and teaches me a lot about other cultures and habits. This initiative opens doors for women engineers to communicate and exchange knowledge. 

I would also suggest that tech companies and other tech initiatives facilitate international internship opportunities, These would allow women to sharpen their skills in a real work environment, working with experienced professionals and using specialised software and hardware. 

Finally, many talented people in the world are born in developing countries and are sometimes under-represented. They should be reached out to contribute to world development, and so, to ensure geographic diversity and equity.

Can you comment on diversity or intersectionality issues that you have experienced, seen or been made aware of?

Being a woman with a headscarf makes me remarkable, sometimes in a negative way. I wonder whether people judge me based on my appearance. Indeed, some companies don’t accept women with headscarves,  claiming that we should hide our religion at work! But  I always say: “We are covering our hair, not our mind”.

I believe that showing competence, volunteer work and good communication skills can help me build strong bridges to overcome these issues. I work to widen my network, impress people, be an ambassador for like-minded women facing similar challenges.

I would like to finish by Oprah Winfrey’s words “I know what it feels like not to be wanted…you can use it as a stepping stone to build great empathy for people.”

Who is your Diversity/Equality Hero, and why?

Women in STEM jobs stand out as more likely to see workplace inequalities. Men still outnumber women, especially in computer science jobs.

That’s why I would like to highlight one of the iconic heroines of Diversity in the computer science field. Ada Lovelace is credited with being the world’s first computer programmer, as she drafted plans for how a machine called the Analytical Engine could perform computations. The machine, invented by her friend, mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, is considered to be the first general computer. Lovelace detailed applications for the Analytical Engine that relate to how computers are used today.

Her story inspired me because that improved how women could excel in STEM fields and also remember that men and women have to complete each other and have to work together side by side to impact the world.

Lovelace is remembered annually on Ada Lovelace Day, held on the second Tuesday of October. The international day of recognition celebrates women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Another iconic inspiring woman in my eyes is Oprah Winfrey. Oprah had to overcome many challenges and obstacles before achieving the success she enjoys today. Besides her hard childhood experiences, she succeeded to be a very famous influencer, one of the wealthiest women in America and the highest-paid entertainer in the world.  She is continuously inspiring me. I remember she said “ You are not responsible for any difficult conditions you are born in. But you are responsible for what you are now.” 

What would you recommend to young people thinking of a career in computing?

Don’t limit yourself; you are capable of achieving what you want.  And there is always a good supportive community behind women in STEM, and you have just to reach it, and to be part of it, to change the world and to empower women. Follow your dreams! You can do it.

Finally, don’t forget to give something back to the community!

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