Decoding her Purpose: Using AI to program virtual soccer players and inspire the next generation

How Software Engineer and Assistant Professor Saleha Raza transformed her love for math into a fulfilling career

Saleha Raza ● PhD & Assistant CS Professor ● Habib University

For software engineer and assistant professor Saleha Raza, passion + purpose = fulfillment. This seemingly simple equation stemmed from Saleha using her love of math to solve complex problems.

“We always talk about passion, that’s important, but it’s important to have a purpose,” says Saleha. “AI is truly inspiring for me, everything is there that I love and am super passionate about.”

Growing up, Saleha enjoyed applying math to real-world problems. She aspired to become a doctor before college but didn’t want to abandon math. She didn’t even have an interest in computer science until someone told her the field was heavily based in math and she should give it a try. So Saleha enrolled in Computer Science courses at Karachi University in Pakistan and by the end of her first semester, she found herself loving the classes and their practical application.

One of her first and favorite ‘rubber meets the road’ experiences with CS was competing with her university team, the Karachi Koalas, in the 2013 Robo Cup — aka ‘the FIFA World Cup’ of AI powered robotics. Serving as the Technical Lead, Saleha collaborated with her teammates to program simulated robots that functioned as if they are humans on a team playing and making decisions. Despite being the first Pakistani to ever compete, they took 5th place out of over 50 teams from countries around the world and went on to inspire other students’ work with the platform they established.

“The robots are functioning as if they are humans on a team, playing and making decisions,” said Saleha. “It was quite challenging, but very rewarding.”

2013 Robo Cup — aka ‘the FIFA World Cup’ of AI powered robotics

Before getting her Masters’ degree in CS, Saleha worked as a software engineer at Itim Systems in Karachi, Pakistan. She quickly rose through the ranks to become a Senior Software Engineer, Technical Lead and Database Architect. While she enjoyed software development in industry, she yearned to explore more within computer science, so she returned to school to earn her Master’s degree in from Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology.

“I knew that I wanted to be in academia, teaching and doing research, but wanted some practical experience,” said Saleha. “I still needed to learn and have practical exposure and gain more expertise on real life projects.”

Dr. Raza didn’t stop at a Master’s degree — she completed her Ph.D. at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi. Awarded the Australian Endeavour Scholarship in 2011, she visited the Quantum Computation and Intelligent System (QCIS) lab, at the University of Technology, Sydney as a doctoral fellow. In her Ph.D. research, she applied imitation learning to build collaborative strategies for a team of autonomous agents and was recognized by the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAA) and The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) doctoral symposiums as a groundbreaking new field. In 2012, Saleha worked as a research intern on Microsoft’s Machine Learning and Perceptron Group on their Bayesian Application Programming Interface (API).

Raza believes that computer science is male-dominated, mostly, because we treat it that way.

“Society has stereotypes, so women have this perception that CS is not for them.”

Often the only woman on her work teams, she hopes to encourage more women to pursue CS. She serves within Habib University’s Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WICSE) initiative, which supports women in CS and Electrical Engineering. The society supports the next generation of engineers, especially college freshman and sophomore students who may have a difficult start as they are just learning about the industry. The organization also encourages high school girls to consider STEM. Last summer, WICSE hosted a week-long data science workshop with all female speakers to promote female role models in the field.

“Overall CS is great, fun, exciting, and gives you great power,” said Raza, who encourages women to explore different fields to see what they may like. “There is no reason women should stay away or cannot succeed in this field.”

This story was written by Kristen Shipley, wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Learn more about our fellowship at wogrammer.org/fellowship.


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