Alumni

Alumni profile - Raghad Zuraiki

One of my long-term goals is to use my AI knowledge and skills to contribute to the technological developments in the healthcare sector to help fill in the need for available professionals which many disadvantaged countries are not able to provide. I also aspire to contribute towards making education available to everyone around the world, which unfortunately isn't possible right now due to a lack of funding, lack of proper educational materials, and lack of trained teachers.

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Why did you study BSc Mathematics at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest in this specific degree?

I choose to study Mathematics because I simply really enjoyed the subject at school and I was good it. I also knew that having a Mathematics degree would open many career doors for me after graduation as well as provide me with important transferable skills that are sought after by many organisations.

I choose Queen Mary specifically due to its extremely inclusive and diverse atmosphere which I saw on the Open Day visit before joining the University. I also really liked the range of programmes offered by the Mathematical Sciences department and how flexible the team was in terms of changing the programme in the first few months if it's possible to do so.

What was your favourite aspect of your undergraduate degree and were there any academics who helped shape your time and studies at Queen Mary?

My favourite aspect from my Mathematics degree was the way it made me view Mathematics with a completely different perspective to how I viewed it before starting my degree. I really enjoyed the challenging and stimulating aspect of the subject which I believe has helped me develop strong problem solving and attention to detail skills.

Dr Shabnam Beheshti, who was my supervisor for my third-year project, was one of the most supportive and kindest people I have ever met. She went above and beyond for all her students despite all the circumstances we went through in 2020. She didn’t only help me by offering her impressive knowledge while I was working on my project, but her constant and endless encouragement made me believe in myself. She is one of the reasons why I continued to do a Masters, as without her I would never have thought I would even be capable of doing the third-year project which was optional for us.

Can you tell us a bit more about your overall experience as a Maths Ambassador?

I truly enjoyed being a Maths Ambassador as it was a great opportunity to speak to and encourage younger students who were considering pursuing a Mathematics degree at Queen Mary by showing them around our campus and the different facilities we have. During my time as a Maths Ambassador, I also really enjoyed working with other Ambassadors to make sure the events were running smoothly. Some of the events we supported included Open Days, Offer Holders Days and Girls in Maths events, the latter of which aimed to inspire more girls to study Mathematics.

What did you enjoy the most about being a Course Representative for BSc Mathematics?

During my time as Course Representative for BSc Mathematics, I really enjoyed communicating with my peers as well as working in partnership with staff to improve the overall student experience. One of the things I was most proud of was the weekly peer-led study sessions I organised and facilitated for first-year Mathematics students. The main aim of these sessions was to create a friendly environment for everyone to build a network while helping each other academically. Myself and many others are now close friends with the students who attended these sessions.

Why did you decide to study a MSc in AI after finishing your undergraduate degree? What do you enjoy about the programme?

I first discovered my interest in the technology field when I joined the CodeFirst:Girls Web Development coding course in late 2018 which took place on Queen Mary’s Mile End campus. This course opened my eyes to a field I had never thought about.

Closer to my final year, I had a few appointments with the Careers Team to help me decide what to do after graduation as I really enjoyed my Maths degree but I was also really interested in the tech field. During one of the appointments, the careers consultant Stefan Couch mentioned an AI portable device created by Forus Health’s that allowed efficient screening of the patients’ eyes and filled in the need for available professionals in emerging and low-income countries. As soon as he mentioned this innovation, it confirmed that I wanted to develop similar innovations in the future.

What I enjoy most about my programme is the wide range of modules that are offered as I believe this will help me get a sense of all different branches in the AI field. My modules so far have included subjects such as Machine Learning, Computer Vision, Data Mining, Cognitive Robotics and even Game Development!

How does your Mathematics undergraduate degree support/compliment your current AI studies?

Having a Mathematics degree has definitely supported my current AI studies and made me view complex problems with a distinct perspective compared to my peers who come from a computing background, which is very interesting. My strong mathematical skills and knowledge have been extremely useful in the majority of my modules so far, especially my Machine Learning and Robotics Modules.

Some of the main challenges that girls face when trying to pursue STEM education include doubting our capabilities and the lack of a supportive environment around us as people in general are still not used to seeing confident and ambitious girls studying such challenging subjects. I personally faced this issue before starting both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees due to me being new to the UK and the first female to go to university in my close and extended family. Some people around me have found my goals to be doubtful and unachievable. However, I decided to use this as motivation to prove their misconceptions wrong.

You were selected to receive a DeepMind Scholarship. Queen Mary offers five fully funded DeepMind Scholarships every year to support students wishing to pursue postgraduate studies in Computer Science and AI. How did you find out about it, and what was the application process like?

After graduating from my Maths degree, I found it hard to find a job that I would be interested in as I was interested in Tech and AI but I didn’t have enough knowledge or skills to get a job in the field. Then when I saw this fantastic opportunity on the Queen Mary website, I immediately knew that it would be something I would be interested in as I was already keen about getting into AI.

The application process was quite simple, I had to complete a short application form including a short statement detailing my motivation for the field and why I should be considered for the scholarship. I also had to attach the offer letter I received to study MSc in Artificial Intelligence to prove that I was eligible.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Scholarship? Does the Scholarship cover your tuition fees or your living costs, for example?

The DeepMind Scholarships cover the full tuition fees of £10,900 for the course as well as a living allowance of £15,480. The scholarship also provides a £1,500 equipment grant to cover the costs of any needed equipment such as a laptop, a printer or any stationary. Additionally, the scholarship also provides a £2,000 travel grant that (in normal times!) covers the traveling costs for any talks or seminars that might be abroad and would support our studies.

The DeepMind Scholarship Programme launched in 2019 thanks to a significant donation from the leading British AI company. In what ways have DeepMind been involved with your studies?

The DeepMind Scholarship did not only enable me to drastically enhance my knowledge in the field of AI but it has also boosted my confidence overall by offering me a mentor from their team who is always there to support me and guide me towards taking positive steps to achieve my academic and career goals.

Alongside my mentor, DeepMind has also given us the opportunity to connect and speak to all their scholars and team around the world through Slack. Everyone from their side has been extremely supportive and more than happy to talk to us about their work as well guide us to the right academic resources whenever we ask any questions.

DeepMind has also recently offered all their scholars the chance to take part in their Interview Skills Week which consist of various workshops and aims to help us build skills and capabilities to support us upon graduation in the job market, as well as provide us with an opportunity to connect with their team.

Girls often rule out studying Computer Science and AI because of its reputation for being ‘techy’ and male dominated. What would you say to girls about your experience that might challenge this perception? And what can be done to encourage more women to pursue STEM education?

I believe one of the main barriers that girls face and I personally faced is doubting our capabilities in a field that is male-dominated. I personally found it challenging when I first started this programme as the majority of the students were male and had a computing background, so it was hard in many ways to relate to them. However, to overcome this I connected with other females from my course, including other DeepMind Scholars, which instantly gave me lots of confidence knowing that I was not the only one in this position. Remembering my purpose for doing this degree and how we get to be the change that we want to see by doing such courses in order to be an inspiration for younger girls, has really helped me to feel better and keep going.

I truly believe overcoming this barrier can be achieved by believing in ourselves more, taking actions with confidence and also by supporting other women who are in a similar position!

The United Nations have proclaimed 11 February “International Day of Women and Girls in Science” to ensure full and equal access to, and participation in, science for female individuals. In your opinion and from personal experience, what are the main challenges women in science have to face?

Following on from my previous answer, some of the main challenges that girls face when trying to pursue STEM education include doubting our capabilities and the lack of a supportive environment around us as people in general are still not used to seeing confident and ambitious girls studying such challenging subjects. I personally faced this issue before starting both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees due to me being new to the UK and the first female to go to university in my close and extended family. Some people around me have found my goals to be doubtful and unachievable. However, I decided to use this as motivation to prove their misconceptions wrong.

I feel the need to make the most of all of the opportunities around me because I know if I was still back home, I probably would not have continued with my education and I never would have gone to university. I also feel the need to use the skills and knowledge that I have gained from my degree to one day give back to my home country and help other young people who are not able to pursue their dreams because of things outside of their control. 

What would you say to someone who is considering doing the AI programme you are doing?

My advice to anyone who is considering applying to the AI programme and who have the right skills is to simply go for it! It is an extremely important and interesting subject; it will also open many doors for you as every industry at the moment has an extremely high demand for AI capabilities.

In this article on The DeepMind Scholarship, you state that your scholarship will help you “contribute positively towards the technological developments that will change the way we live and help disadvantaged countries.” What are you hoping to contribute to after completing your AI masters? And why do you think it is important to use science and technology to help those who are less fortunate?

One of my long-term goals is to use my AI knowledge and skills to contribute to the technological developments in the healthcare sector to help fill in the need for available professionals which many disadvantaged countries are not able to provide. I also aspire to contribute towards making education available to everyone around the world, which unfortunately isn't possible right now due to a lack of funding, lack of proper educational materials, and lack of trained teachers.

I came from a disadvantaged country myself and had to miss more than a year of education due to the war that was happening in Syria. I know exactly what it feels like to not be able to have access to education and to live in an environment where there’s not enough healthcare professionals for everyone, which is why I am extremely keen to contribute to these two sectors.

For now, I am working on my project with Dr Padumadasa to develop an app that uses a Machine Learning algorithm to produce personlised workout and diet plans while keeping in mind the emotions and mental wellbeing of the user using smart sensors. This project will promote a healthier lifestyle in a way that is accessible and suitable to all users without a need to pay a professional to guide them through their journey.

I truly believe the more we support people who are less fortunate, the more new talented individuals we will discover. This will then lead to a better inclusive world and also to many new developments overall.

During these unprecedented Covid times, it is important to remain positive. What, in your life as it is now, makes you happy?

Having a supportive circle around me. I think it is extremely important to support the people around us especially during these times. This could be as simple as checking up on each other; sometimes just knowing that someone else is there for us is more than enough to make us feel happier.

I also think prioritising the things we enjoy most is a way to keep us happy and positive; for me this includes exercising, doing some art as well as journaling and writing what is on my mind on paper at the end of each day.

And what motivates you in life?

My background and all of the experiences I have gone through so far in life. I came from Syria around 6-7 years ago and when I came to England I had missed a year of education because of the war in Syria; now I feel the need to make the most of all of the opportunities around me because I know if I was still back home, I probably would not have continued with my education and I never would have gone to university. I also feel the need to use the skills and knowledge that I have gained from my degree to one day give back to my home country and help other young people who are not able to pursue their dreams because of things outside of their control. 

Lastly, the theme for International Women's Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge... what do you choose challenge?

I choose to challenge creating more positive supportive space for the empowerment of women from all different backgrounds and fields. 

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield, Marketing and Communications Officer (School of Mathematical Sciences), Alessandra Maffei and Institute of Coding Business Development Manager, Lowri Jones. If you would like to get in touch with Raghad or engage her in your work, please contact alumni@qmul.ac.uk.