Alumni profile - Dr. Dena Al Thani
Designing technology to change people's lives is fascinating. The pleasure of doing applied research is that you can see the impact of your work quite fast. I am currently leading a number of research projects in the field of assistive technology and accessibility. These projects serve two groups of users: the blind, and children with an autism spectrum disorder.
What did you study at Queen Mary and what are you doing now? I studied MSc Software Engineering from Sept 2008 to Sept 2009. In 2011, I joined the Ph.D. Program in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer (EECS). I was awarded my Ph.D. in March 2016.
Why did you choose to study MSc Software Engineering at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest to study this course? The program design, reputable faculty members and the strength of the research group were the three main reasons.
Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, Queen Mary has the biggest university campus in London, a very diverse body of students and faculty populations, and strong research groups. Additionally, I got the chance to visit Queen Mary in summer 2008, and I really loved the atmosphere. I could envisage myself studying there.
Congratulations on being nominated as a finalist in the ‘Professional Achievement Award’ category of the British Council’s Study UK Alumni Awards in Qatar. How did you feel when you found out you had been nominated? Can you describe what the British Council’s Study UK Alumni Awards are for those who are not familiar with them? I was thrilled by the news. It is such a prestigious award. The award winners and finalists are usually leaders in their fields who have used their experience of studying at a UK university to make a positive contribution to their communities, professions, and countries.
Can you give me some examples of research projects that you have led in the past and that you are currently working on? I am currently leading a number of research projects in the field of assistive technology and accessibility. These projects serve two groups of users: the blind, and children with an autism spectrum disorder.
The first project is developing a search Engine for the Blind. The Internet is the main source of information nowadays; we use search engines numerous times a day. Blind users access the web using a screen reader. There is a number of research evidence which states that blind web searchers tend to spend more than double the time sighted web searchers spend on a search results page. This, in turn, affects their performance and inclusion. Therefore, we aim to provide different and alternative ways to represent the search results to facilitate the search process, enhance their experience and support their efficacy. The work in this project leads to the design of an interactive tool (Interact SE) that represents an overview of the search results page using audio components. The tool has been evaluated by blind users in cooperation with Mada Centre and Qatar Social and Cultural Center for the Blind. The end result of this study is a functional prototype that summarizes the search results, where the main ideas are identified as concepts and represented to the users first. The user then has the ability to dig for more information and explore more search results in detail.
The second project is on detecting and Monitoring Attention in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder During Learning. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopment disorder characterised by a deficit in social communication and repetitive patterns of behaviour. They are also known to exhibit an unusual pattern of attentional behaviours such as difficulty in shifting attention, inability to pay attention to over or under stimulated audio-visual stimuli and paying little or no attention to social stimuli. The prevalence of this disorder is relatively high and there has not been any known cure for it. Hence, a series of educational and behavioural interventions have been developed by leveraging existing technologies to support their attention deficits which invariably supports their social communication and academic skills. These interventions work differently for the children with ASD as some may require over-stimulating effect and others prefer the opposite. Therefore, it is imperative to detect and monitor the attention level of these children in real time during a learning intervention to identify which intervention suits them while learning. This will create the opportunity of changing attentional cues as required by each child. The aim of this study is to design and develop an assistive technology to monitor the level of attention of children with ASD during learning in a VR-based environment. We intend to apply objective measures in detecting and monitoring the attention of children with ASD in a VR-based intervention by leveraging today’s sensing technology which is reliable and requires little or no expertise.
I understand that during your time at Queen Mary you gained experience speaking at conferences in your field and that you met with renowned scientists and that since Queen Mary, your work has been presented at the United Nations. What is it like to be operating at this level of expertise? What did you learn from experiences such as these? I had the pleasure to present my results in top conferences. In 2016, I took apart as a panellist in the annual meeting of the UN council working group on internet policy issues at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Later that year, I was officially invited to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to speak about accessibility in the UN Social Forum, Geneva. In 2019, I participated as the main speaker in the panel discussion on how technology can help people with autism, on the side lines of the 12 sessions of the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in the UN headquarters in New York. Speakers in such venues are usually some of the most distinguished people in their line of work and have an intensive experience in their fields to come and talk about. In such events, you get to meet world renowned experts and interact with them. These are very enriching experiences in one’s career.
Can you describe what a typical working day as an assistant professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University and as a consultant for Research and Innovation in Mada Center, look like for you? In academia, a typical working day would involve meeting with my research group and discussing our current projects. I usually have one-to-one meetings throughout the weeks with my Ph.D. and MSc students. I currently have three Ph.D. students and four MSc students. In these meetings, we discuss current achievements and plans. A typical day may also include teaching. I teach two postgraduate courses: Advanced Data Structures and Algorithms and Interactive Design for Healthcare. In addition, I am currently the Director of Interdisciplinary Programs. As part of this role, I have launched two new Master’s programs (Masters of Data Analytics for Health Management and Master of Information Management for Healthcare). I also serve as the Chair of Outreach and the partnership committee at the College, where I work on the organization of partnerships with main stakeholders in Qatar, alongside leading the work with my colleagues on the organizing of the College’s Annual Research Open Day.
What research did you conduct as part of Queen Mary’s Ph.D. studentship program? At Queen Mary, I worked under the supervision of Dr. Tony Stockman, a senior lecturer in EECS. Dr. Stockman's research interest lies in the field of Human-computer Interaction, and inclusive design. I began my research by investigating whether collaborative web searching between blind and sighted people is a common activity. And In fact, I found out that it is a common activity. Visually impaired people may often find themselves collaboratively searching the web with their sighted peers in workplaces and educational settings. I then performed an exploratory study under lab conditions to examine the issues that arise when blind and sighted people perform collaborative searches using commonly available tools such as standard search engines, browsers, word processors and email applications. The data I collected from the study included responses to questionnaires and debriefing interviews, screen and video recordings and specific measures such as task completion times and numbers of errors. I analysed the data arising from this study using a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques. I used the results of this analysis to draw up an agenda for research in the area of collaborative, cross-modal information seeking, which, since this entire area has previously been overlooked, should be seen as one of the major contributions of my Ph.D., and to accessibility research more generally.
I then turned to the question of whether we can support this problem. Such types of collaborative search could benefit through using any of the existing tools to support sighted people undertaking collaborative search. I developed additional interface functionality required to provide this level of accessibility. The final stage of my Ph.D. involved a study of blind and sighted users employing this modified tool to undertake collaborative web searches. I employed broadly similar research methods to collect and analyse the data from this study as was used in the initial, exploratory investigation. The results of the study enabled me to come up with a series of recommendations regarding the design of software to support collaborative, cross-modal information seeking from the ground up. The contributions from my Ph.D. are therefore both on a theoretical level, setting out a long-term vision for the development of accessible software for collaborative working, and practical, in that I produced and instrumented an effective environment in which such collaborations can be studied.
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? At Queen Mary, there were a lot of opportunities to develop our research, teaching and academic career; I was fortunate enough to work as a Teaching Assistant in a number of courses. Besides working alongside world renewed scientists in my field of research, I got the chance to enrol in a learning and teaching postgraduate program. I obtained a postgraduate certificate of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education which allowed me to become an Associate Member of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) in the UK. I was also an active member of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group in Queen Mary. The aim of this group, which was established in 2009, is to establish informal links with women working within STEMM sectors who can act as role models, discuss a wide range of career paths; and provide encouragement for female students and early career researchers at Queen Mary.
Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Being a research student gives you the opportunity to look for the best career options, learn from experts in the field and build your skills portfolio. My time at Queen Mary allowed me to enhance not only my academic and research skills, but also my communication and network skills. My advice to students is to also be active in taking part in all the wonderful things going on at Queen Mary.
Why is it exciting to do what you do? Designing technology to change people's lives is fascinating. I guess the pleasure of doing applied research is that you can see the impact of your work quite fast. I love applied research. I also think that it is of great importance to Qatar to design technologies that suit the culture and the lifestyle of the people living there. It can have a very real and tremendous impact on improving people’s daily lives.
What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you give one or two examples of your most memorable moments? Everything! I just loved and still love Queen Mary. The most rewarding and memorable moment is the day I defended my Ph.D. Thesis. It was one day before my birthday, the 19th of October, 2015. I remember every detail of the day. I prepared very well beforehand by rehearsing with my supervisor Dr. Tony Stockman and my research group weeks ahead. The day went so well. It felt like a dream. The committee members were very happy with the thesis and they praised my hard work and the hard work and guidance of my Ph.D. Thesis supervisor Dr. Tony Stockman. To this day, I am very grateful to everyone who supported my dream: my family, my supervisor, my friends, my colleagues and the participants of my experiments.