Women in Science

Women played significant roles in the field of science throughout the ages. They outdid themselves when it came to breaking barriers and overcoming hurdles to live their dreams. This notion lived on and spread to every girl who wants to achieve success and fulfill their dream of becoming top tier scientists.

Women hold several key positions in major scientific researches and invention. From being the Country Director of a research institute to running a robotics lab or being a computer whiz, there are women holding heads of department or Director Positions at various fields and pretty much everywhere. Thanks to the historians, the scientific endeavours and accomplishments of women were brought forward. The amazing stories of real-life role models have been motivating the future generation of female scientists and leaders to get inspired. On the eve of its 17th Anniversary issue, ICE Today brings to you such stories that will inspire and hopefully motivate aspiring young females to build a career in the technical field. We bring you the stories of Prof. Dr. Meerjady Sabrina Flora, Prof. Dr. Lafifa Jamal, and Prof. Dr. Tanzima Hashem, who have been leading in their respective fields.

Prof. Dr. Meerjady Sabrina Flora


Institute of Epidemiology,  Disease Control and Research (IEDCR)

I love working for the people. Doing social work has been a passion of mine since I was a student”, stated Prof. Dr. Meerjady Sabrina Flora. During childhood, the renowned professor was always encouraged to be a doctor. Her father dreamt and motivated her to pursue medical science.

A born leader

After enrolling in Dhaka Medical College, in 1983, her world and her perspective towards life grew wider. She was involved in student politics during her tenure. Her friends and her seniors were the first to notice her cultural and leadership qualities. This acknowledgement encouraged her to do extracurricular activities through many platforms which eventually led her to study public health. “I was nurtured there. Dhaka Medical College will always hold a special place in my heart,” she said this while reminiscing about her days as a medical student. During her stay in DMC dormitories, she learned to face challenges and manage critical situations. These experiences led her to emerge as a new woman and gave her a new meaning of being independent.

Choosing the career

As a part of various student bodies, she was required to organise numerous programs and workshops related to social work. Back in the day, the Public Health subject was not considered as important as it is today. However, over time, social workshops and other programs steered her more and more towards studying the subject. During her internship as a doctor, she realised that public health is diverse and takes account of the health of an entire population, rather than focusing on health at an individual level. After grasping that notion, it was apparent to her that this field would suit her perfectly.
By not giving in to societal norms, her father always made sure that his children focus on their future. Like her brothers, she always had access to everything. This mindset gave her the strength to pursue her career while being a daughter, a wife, and most importantly, a mother. Dr. Meerjady became the woman she is today thanks to her family. “Without the continuous support, motivation and sacrifices made by my daughters and my mother, I would not be standing where I am today. My husband also played a significant role in my journey to seek knowledge” she shares modestly.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Coming from a middle-class family, she faced obstacles, but the determined woman wouldn’t define them as struggles. “It is important to have a resilient attitude towards life if one plans to achieve one’s dreams,” she states. After working in several multinational institutions, she went on to complete her Masters in Epidemiology from NIPSOM. Later, she joined as the Assistant Director at the Bangladesh Medical Research Council where she could apply her knowledge practically over three years. After that period she started teaching at NIPSOM as the Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and gradually worked her way up. Later, she became the Professor of Epidemiology during her tenure. To pursue her doctorate in Cambridge, she took a break from teaching only to resume her career after getting her Ph.D. It was particularly difficult for her as she had to spend a prolonged amount of time away from her family.

In 2016, Dr. Meerjady was appointed for the Director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control, and Research. As the Director she has implemented lots of surveillance activities, research, oversaw emergencies while ensuring sreening measures for ZIKA, MERS-CoV etc at Dhaka Airport. Her team also dealt with the Chikungunya outbreak in 2017 and is currently overviewing the Death review committee for the recent Dengue outbreak.

Putting preventions first

The professor and her organisation anticipated the Dengue upsurge which was bolstered due to the rapid climate change. The compensating mechanisms, in nature, are not being able to keep up with the environmental changes. She added by saying, “We cannot control that, and the most we can do is reduce our reaction time during an outbreak.” According to  Dr. Meerjady the institute plan protocols every year to deal with any outbreaks. Several teams are always on call waiting for deployment in case of an outbreak.
In Public Health, prevention is far more effective and far less expensive than cure. She proved the point, by stressing the importance of public health by stating that fundamental quality of Public Health is its preventative nature. “IEDRC is responsible for maintaining, containing and responding against any outbreaks in Bangladesh,” she said.

Leaving behind legacy

Director Meerjady also plays the role of a Principal Investigator, which roughly translates to her over-seeing the technical aspects and management of various researches. Her work and her leadership skills in the field of science recieved recognition beyond the borders of Bangladesh. She was even elected as the Vice President of International Association of the National Public Health Institutes (IANPHI) comprising institutes of 95 countries. The professor is currently working on the Early Warning System among various other projects. This system relies on meteorological and water quality data. Once these data are acquired, the system can provide an early signal for Cholera, Dengue or Rotavirus outbreak.

“These projects are being funded by our government. Thanks to its forward thinking nature, more women are being motivated to join in the technical fields. However, we can use more people, particularly in our field.” the doctor said. When asked about the pressure she deals with she joyfully said, “I love my work. My team and I work as a family,” she said. She believes any youngster aspiring to enter the Public Health should learn sacrifice, sincerity and adopt a playful attitude. She smiled and stated, “If I can mentor my students to be like me or more capable than me, that will be my legacy.”

Prof. Dr. Lafifa Jamal

Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering
at Dhaka University

From a very early age, Dr. Lafifa Jamal started to quench her thirst for knowledge by reading books. With no internet to surf or Wikipedia to go through, the small library at Narayangonj city is the place where her imagination grew, and her curious nature was nourished. “We did not have Youtube or anything back then, so it was all books or taking help from school teachers,” she adds. During her adolescence, she developed a drive to compete in science fairs and commit herself to do personal science projects.

Growing up with Science

Dr. Lafifa was merely eleven months old when her father passed away. From that point on, her uncle became the father figure in her life. It was him, along with her mother, who nurtured her into the woman she is today. The professor was so inclined towards mathematics that she started solving problems relentlessly. “I had a passion for math, but at that time, we didn’t have math olympiads, so I used to practice a lot at home for my own interest,” she shares. Her mother, like all mothers, tried to get her interested in singing and painting but to no avail. “I was not into them at all. Ultimately, everything my mother tried failed and science won!” she said while laughing.

Reaching for the stars

Being a resilient woman, she enrolled herself in the first batch of Computer Science and Engineering at the Dhaka University despite her family’s wishes of her becoming a doctor.
Back in that period, the newly formed CSE department of Dhaka University had minimal facilities, but that was not enough to sway Dr. Lafifa from her path.
Her passion for CSE drove her to go above and beyond to fully understand the topic even though it was a brand new department. She gleefully shares, “I was fortunate to have access to computers during HSC. I used to work on older word processors and started Qbasic Programming back then on Microsoft DOS and Windows 3.1 platform.”
The libraries she familiarised herself with, all her life, provided her with the knowledge and the opportunity to pursue CSE. Her perseverance and tenaciousness paved her way to completing CSE.

Becoming a Scientist

At the early stage of Dr. Latifa’s professional career, managing funds for her research was one of the significant barriers she had to overcome. In that period, it was not the norm for the university or the government to provide support for research. Due to these circumstances, her passion drove her to invest her resources for the sake of her research. The iron-willed woman added,” When we used to do research, the equipment support or whatever we needed, was funded from our own pockets. Now the scenario has changed a lot; research funds from ministries are research organisations more available than before.”
In 2007, Dr. Lafifa Jamal was appointed as the Assistant Professor of the CSE department of Dhaka University. Over time she worked her way up to become an Associate Professor. “I spent 12, fruitful, years in that department,” she shares.
Currently, she is pursuing her career as a Professor of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering at Dhaka University. Working in an exciting and emerging sector, Dr. Lafifa has got herself involved in various fascinating research involving Robotics and Intelligent Systems.

Making a difference

The pioneer of her field wants to make her work accessible to the masses. “A research either gets published in a journal or gets patented. In other words, it remains research” she continues to say, “I believe that particular research is only successful when the general public can use it.”
One of which is building a communication platform for paralytic patients. “We are working on sensors which will detect the specific eye movements of patients. If executed properly, patients will be able to communicate and that is what we want to achieve through our research. I feel that if we can get this to work, it will be very helpful for the paralytic patients,” she adds with significant interests.
Another project she is working on is automated administering of saline. This automated device for the intravenous system can identify critical levels and condition of patients. Upon doing so, it can automatically cut off the drip without any human intervention regardless of the type of saline bag used. If that is not enough, she plans to incorporate the same technology in blood transfusions as well. Such innovations can prove to be vital in a densely populated country like Bangladesh, where health infrastructure needs improving.

Wearing many hats

Besides reaching new frontiers, Dr. Lafifa has contributed to various organisations. Bangladesh Women in Technology (BWIT) is one such organisation which encourages women of Bangladesh in technology entrepreneurship. It helps these women to grow by providing technology awareness as well as training, leadership development, networking and mentoring. Being the president of the organisation, she added that BWIT educates aspiring female entrepreneurs about logistical support they might need to set up offices and how to register their business.

Being an integral part of the Bangladesh Open Source Network, Dr. Lafifa was involved in organising Bangladesh Robot Olympiad for the first time in 2018. In this event, young minds competed with each other with their technological prowess only to win medals at the International Robot Olympiad in the same year.
“Last year, the International Robot Olympiad central committee appointed me as one of its members,” she said modestly. If that’s not impressive enough, it is noteworthy that she got involved in the central committee in the first year of membership.

More power to the women

When asked about the women’s employment in the technical field, she stated that the numbers are indeed increasing and hopes it will be even higher in the future. She holds the idea that parents need to motivate their daughters to pursue technical fields and support their child’s decision on whatever career path she chooses. As a parent herself, she believes that nurturing a child’s passion is imperative for his or her cognitive growth.
As guidance to youngsters, she suggested preparing for struggles if they hope to fulfil their dreams. Determination, passion, and believing in oneself is vital to overcome the biggest hurdles in life. She advises, “You need to set goals such as what you want to achieve in five or ten years. If we do not set goals, we can easily get distracted by the struggles and hurdles.”

Dr. Tanzima Hashem

Professor, Department of  Computer Science and Engineering

Bangladesh  University of Engineering  and Technology

Following her father’s footsteps, Prof Dr. Tanzima Hashem dedicated herself to building a career as an academician along with being a researcher. Due to her passion for mathematics and problem solving, she decided to study computer science and engineering. Now, Prof. Dr. Tanzima is recognized as one of the rising scientists in Asia.

Funding for the future

After completing her doctorate from the University of Melbourne, Australia, she decided to come back home with a dream to contribute to her country. Pursuing scientific endeavours in the context of developing countries does not come without challenges. It is nothing new that Bangladesh has limited funding for research, facilities, and support for students with doctorates. The Professor of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) says “Here, students are mainly undergraduate and part-time Masters students. I am grateful to my students. Without them, it would have never been possible for me to continue quality research and publish in top tier conferences and journals despite the shortcomings we face in our country.” In contrast, researchers in developed countries have access to sufficient funds and various facilities.

More Than Solving an equation

Tanzima’s research is designed to use technology to solve real-life problems. She aims to focus on making location-based applications usable and beneficial for people. Location-based services help people to utilise transport resources effectively and thereby reduce road traffic and plan their activities with convenience. Such applications hold the potential of becoming a game-changer for densely populated cities like Dhaka. She shares that location-based services allow a commuter to know the nearest bus stop from his or her current location using a GPS-enabled smartphone. Currently, she is working on developing novel location-based applications like finding safe and accessible paths for travellers. This application will also help individuals or groups to plan trips at multiple places such as restaurants, supermarkets or ATM booths.

Privacy matters

In the era of smartphones, facing a data breach or stolen identity is not unheard of. For those who are not familiar with the term, it means an intentional or unintentional release of secure or private/confidential information to an untrusted environment. Synonymous terms for this phenomenon include unintentional information disclosure, data leak, information leakage and also data spill. Privacy threat is an essential barrier to the proliferation of location-based services in any society. While accessing these innovative location-based services, Dr. Tanzima plans to develop solutions that will allow people to have control over sensitive data about their health, habits, and whereabouts. Speaking about her research in the next decade, she hopes to have a direct, tangible impact in Bangladesh through her research. Dr. Tanzima elaborated that “The successful completion of my research on finding safe paths will help women to avoid harassment on the streets while travelling from one place to another.” There is potential for current map-based applications, such as Google Maps, adopting Tanzima’s research to improve the quality of their location-based services.”

Ensuring equality

Dr. Tanzima strongly feels that the field of science needs greater participation of more women because of diversity fuels innovation and development. She said, “I dream that one day, women and men will equally participate in the field of science. It is not possible to make scientific advancement in all sectors by keeping half of the population behind.” Dr. Tanzima encourages young girls to pursue a career in the field of science. She expressed her confidence that they would love the technical field and will be able to contribute to the betterment of human lives. Her advice to young women considering a career in science is to aim high, take the challenge and have confidence in themselves. She advises the younger generation by saying, “If you have the determination and you put in the sincere effort, no one can hold you back from success.”