Image by Marco Verch

Recipe for smoothie of interests

Most of us start university at the age of 17, but do we know where our interests and talents lie when choosing our field of study at that age? Then we choose a field which is more appealing and continue studying that, but as we go on, we discover new interests, new fields, and so on — how to integrate these new interests into our studies and future career? In my experience, it is hard, but not impossible. Here, I tell you my recipe for how I did it:

Step 1: Find main interest

My name is Sepideh, and I am from Tabriz, the city of handmade carpets and snow-covered mountains in northwest Iran. Like most high-school students in Iran, I had to study hard for the nationwide university entrance exam. In the year I took the exam, there were one and half million applicants, and admission was just 19%. To be admitted into university, I had to study 18 hours a day, without a break. While studying, I realized how much I enjoyed mathematics, and how I lost track of time when I was deeply immersed in solving equations. That was it; I had found my field of study: applied mathematics.

Results of our exam were published in the public newspaper. Early in the morning, I ran to a newspaper stand, bought one, and traced the names with my shaky finger to find my name. There it was, I had been accepted! I was going to study applied mathematics at the Vali-e-Asr University of Rafsanjan, Kerman. Although I was bursting with happiness, I had to prepare myself to move to a city whose culture was different to that of my hometown. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to this new start.

Step 2: Learn new skills

During my bachelor’s studies, as part of my curriculum, I had to learn programming, starting with the programming language Pascal, followed by C, C++, and Fortran. I wrote my first computer game in Pascal in the university computer labs, but I was not the only female student who was spending late hours in computer labs, there were many others. Indeed, 70% of Iranian science and technology students are female! Soon I started teaching English at a private institute as a part-time job and participated in English open discussions on the weekends.

Image taken from programmer’s jokes

Step 3: Detect obstacles

Being one of the top students in my class and a successful teacher at the age of 19, I wanted to be respected for my knowledge and abilities, but that was not the case. My time was wasted sitting in a disciplinary office answering questions about my improper hijab!! Every university in Iran has a department which checks that students are obeying Islamic rules and dress code, and in their eyes, I was violating the rules by not completely covering my hair! Sitting there in a damp office and listening to illogical accusations, I knew I had no chance of having an academic career in this system; I had to leave.

Step 4: Remove obstacles

Leaving Iran would mean having to leave my comfort zone. I would be completely alone abroad, had to face problems all by myself, would be thousands of kilometers away from home, but that also meant opportunities to establish an academic career, learning advanced techniques, and most importantly: the freedom of lifestyle as a woman.

Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free. — Paul Tillich

In my haste to leave, I finished my bachelor’s studies as fast as possible, meanwhile searching for master’s degree programs abroad. Back then, I looked mainly in Sweden because I had some knowledge of the language, and had a sister living there. By that time, I knew that I enjoyed programming mathematical simulations, so I applied for the master’s degree program in scientific computing at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. A couple of months later, I received confirmation of my admission, yesssss! I immediately packed a bag of my belongings, got my visa, said my farewells to family and friends, and took the flight to Stockholm.

I arrived in Stockholm on a sunny day; I did not have to wear a headscarf anymore, I was feeling the wind whirl in my hair, I was free! Later, I took my bag to my student dorm in the suburbs of Stockholm and started my life as a student in Sweden. Everything was totally different to what I had experienced before — not only did I no longer have to cover myself, I could take a Salsa course at university, swim in lakes, and paddle canoe with other students in the archipelago. The courses were very advanced and comprehensive; I learned modern numerical methods and handed in real life assignments, including a simulation of a tsunami, or of flow of blood through the heart. I also improved my programming techniques and learned yet another programming language, Python. A year almost passed, and I had to think what I was going to do after my studies.

A photo of me on KTH campus, Stockholm

Step 5: Seize the chances

One day, a professor in our department told me about an opportunity for participating in a double degree program. Our department had a collaboration with the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) in Germany. As a double degree program, these two universities offered students exchange in the second year of the master’s program. That would mean gaining two master’s degrees, one in scientific computing from KTH, and another degree in computational engineering from FAU university. It seemed like a win-win situation, but on the other hand, I had to move to yet another new country, where I knew no one, and start over. I pondered my options for a while, and the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, so I made my decision and chose the specialty field thermo and fluid dynamics, and moved to Germany in August 2010.

Step 6: Discover new interests

The first months were, honestly, very hard. I did not know the language at all, I did not have any friends, and I had to find a student job immediately to cover my living costs. I started taking classes in German and found a job in a prestigious research institute, Fraunhofer IIS, where mp3 technology was invented. At university, I took many courses in mechanics and thermodynamics, and worked on projects about flow simulations. The more I learned, the more I became interested in mechanics and optimized programming. And I finally started my master’s thesis in medical image processing, calculating blood flow using angiographic images. During my master’s thesis, I grew interested in yet another field, image processing and pattern recognition.

Graduation Ceremony at Nobel Prize Hall, Stockholm

I graduated in December 2011 and was employed as a scientific associate in the Fraunhofer Institute. I loved my position there; I could do research on my project, try new methods, attend conferences, and enhance my programming techniques. Life was enjoyable. I was taking German classes after work and had time to read books about history in the evening. From the time I was a child, I was interested in history, but it had always remained a hobby for me. It felt like I was working in a technical field in one world and submerging myself in history in a parallel world after work. After almost five years of working in the Fraunhofer IIS institute, I felt like I was in my comfort zone — I wanted a new challenge. I was a good programmer and was eager to become even better; what’s more, salaries in the industry were tempting, so I started searching for a job in that field. I found one as a software engineer working for a company in the automotive industry. This was going to be a new experience.

Step 7: Analyze the current state

I started my new job and adapted to the working environment in a non-research association. That meant that if I wanted to learn something new, I had to do it in my free time. We had tight deadlines and had to be very productive and fast; there was no time for being innovative or to do research. I neglected many of my hobbies; I could not read my history books in the evenings anymore. I was working late hours even on weekends. After a couple of months, I was waking up in the morning not wanting to leave my bed. I was not happy!

I realized at that point that in the process of wanting to earn more, I had forgotten what it was I originally wanted from life. During all those years, there were so many things I was interested in but had set aside. I wanted an academic career, I was interested in mathematics, programming, mechanics, image processing, and history. Could I find a position which combined all my interests?

Step 7a: Make your own decision and apply it

For an academic career, I had to obtain a PhD. But when I told my friends that I wanted to quit my job and start a PhD, most of them reacted as though I were crazy.

“Do you really wanna quit your well-paid job to be a student again?” “Come on Sepideh, you are 30 now, it won’t be easy to change your life at this age!”

The more I heard these comments, the more confused I was. I had to get away from people around me and make my own decision. One day after work, I headed to the airport, bought a ticket for the next flight, which was to Skopje, and decided to spend the weekend there alone to think and decide about my future; my life could not continue as it was.

I spent hours sitting in the beautiful cafes of Skopje, thinking about my life, my interests and my ambitions. At the end, I made my decision: I would go back home, resign from my job, and search for a doctoral program which included at least three of my interests. I had to do this immediately, before others could influence my decision.

Step 8: Enjoy the sweet result

To my surprise, when I started searching, I found a PhD program which was offering even more than I had hoped for. The project was developing a virtual research environment for historians of science, presenting works of mathematicians from Basel, Leonhard Euler and Bernoullis. This project combined all my interests: I would be programming, I could write my own machine learning algorithm to recognize mathematical figures in manuscripts, I would be working with mathematical data, and I could do my own research on the history of mathematics: The Mechanics of Jacob Bernoulli.

Jacob Bernoulli (1655–1705), Mathematics Professor at University of Basel

Furthermore, the PhD course was defined as being part of the field of digital humanities, a relatively new discipline which represents a path towards a digital future. I immediately applied for this program, and here I am now — a PhD student in the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel, working on the Bernoulli-Euler online project, and I can happily say: I have found my dream position.

Digital Humanities, image taken from hastac

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