Spotlight on Women in Tech – Dr. Sara Khalifa
We’re talking to Dr. Sara Khalifa from the Data61 distributed sensing systems group (DSSG) on her career journey and why she pursued career in tech.
GIVE US A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF YOUR CAREER JOURNEY IN TECH SO FAR AND YOUR CURRENT ROLE AT CSIRO’S DATA61.
My career journey started in my home country of Egypt in 2003, when I decided to pursue computer science for my bachelor’s degree. At that time, computer science was relatively new to my parents and they weren’t sure if it is a good career option for me.
However, they allowed me to freely choose what I wanted to study. Later, they were happily convinced when I was ranked first through my studies and graduated with honours in 2007.
I married and gave birth to my first son, then completed my master’s in information technology in 2011. The following year I decided to move to Australia with my family to pursue my PhD at UNSW as an international student. The PhD was a collaborative project between NICTA and the university which laid the foundation of my career at Data61.
During my PhD studies, I gave birth to my second son and despite the extra personal responsibilities, I managed to not only complete my PhD, but also receive the 2017 John Makepeace Bennett Award which is awarded by CORE (Computing Research and Education Association of Australasia) to the best PhD dissertation of the year within Australia and New Zealand in the field of Computer Science.
Data61 submitted three provisional patent applications based on the research presented in my PhD thesis where I am the first named inventor, recognising the significant commercial value of my research. This thought me that nothing was impossible, as long as I set my mind to it and try hard enough.
My journey has not been an easy one, but it was definitely exciting and rewarding. My family and I fell in love with Australia and decided to call it home. Currently, I am a research scientist with the distributed sensing systems group (DSSG) at Data61 where I enjoy doing research to quantify the information content embedded in energy harvesting signals by using signal processing and machine learning algorithms.
TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE PROJECTS YOU’VE WORKED ON AT CSIRO’S DATA61 THAT ARE HELPING THE ORGANISATION ACHIEVE IMPACT?
At DSSG, I am mainly working on a project named Energy Harvesting-based Sensing where harvesting energy from the environment could potentially serve the dual purpose of generating power as well as saving sensor-related power consumption by acting as a proxy for power consuming sensors.
This project aims at delivering a battery-less architecture that handles energy-neutral sensing, processing, and communication and still delivers high value information. By avoiding the use of batteries and surviving off energy harvested from the environment, tiny devices can monitor objects in hard-to-reach places maintenance-free for decades, while eliminating risks around chemical leakages into the environment that are inherent to the use of batteries.
The potential impact from this project is therefore extremely high by enabling truly sustainable sensing with unprecedented resolution and duration of data, driving key decisions on large areas of economic interest.
This will offer new services and new business models as industries adapt to new capabilities delivered by battery-less self-powered autonomous devices, opening new markets in various sensing domains, ranging from health, environment, agriculture, smart cities, to consumer applications.
Dr Khalifa is currently spearheading the development and commercialisation of a new environmentally friendly prototype sensor to help combat food-fraud and protect the reputation of Australian produce. The novel technology uses vibration energy harvesting and machine learning to accurately detect anomalies in the transportation of products such as meat. Read more about about the results of trials here.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT WORKING IN TECH?
I love many things about working with cutting edge technology including problem solving, continuous learning, innovation, challenges, and opportunities. However, what I love most about working in tech is the true equality, nothing matters more than a person’s contribution, dedication, effort and skills – regardless of gender, nationality or ethnicity. I believe that the more diverse our team is, the stronger we are, and I am proud to say that at Data61 we truly embrace and encourage diversity.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT’S THE SINGLE BIGGEST CHANGE THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN IN ORDER TO ENCOURAGE MORE WOMEN TO PURSUE TECHNICAL CAREERS?
I think it has to start early at primary school level or even before starting school by encouraging and supporting young girls to believe in their selves and the unique capabilities within them. We need to be conscious of our language and behaviours at home, as well as in the school environment to suppress any gender stereotypes about technical and scientific careers. It’s also vital to increase the public presence of women in STEM – it’s very hard to be what you can’t see!
WHAT IS THE NUMBER ONE THING MEN CAN DO TO BE ALLIES OF WOMEN IN TECH?
Listening to women, it is as simple as that! But, listening in a way that inspires trust, respect, empathy, and genuine valuing of both her experience and her capabilities. Women in the workplace don’t need male saviours, they need meaningful allies who will take the time to listen, support, mentor, and sponsor because they genuinely believe it is the right thing to do.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ANYONE WANTING TO PURSUE A CAREER IN TECH? ANYTHING YOU WISH YOU KNEW?
Surround yourself with people who empower you, believe in you and amplify your inner strength and constantly remind you of the unique capabilities within you. And never ever give up or be afraid of dreaming, just follow your passion and shine bright like a diamond!
See some of Dr Khalifa’s latest work during her December 2020 presentation at our Ensuring Supply Chain Integrity seminar. Here, Dr Khalifa’s explores how a data-driven approach to tracking and anomaly detection in a boxed meat transport chain can guarantee the integrity of a product’s origin and identify attempts to tamper with items.