Shehzeen Hussain ’14 and three other engineering students worked through the night at a 24-hour Mount Holyoke College hackathon last fall, creating a one-person, remote-operated video camera that uses facial recognition software and a computerized armband to keep the cameraperson’s face centered in the frame.
The result of their effort was so impressive that MHC Associate Professor of Computer Science Audrey St. John asked to share their code for one of her own projects.
“I love challenges, and more than that I love the excitement of building something new,” says Hussain. “Projects are bound to work if you are dedicated enough to make them work.”
Hussain was talking about electronic systems, but she could just as easily have been describing her determination to succeed as a woman in the heavily male fields of physics and electrical engineering. She’s earning degrees in both through a five-year program that combines courses at Mount Holyoke and at the nearby University of Massachusetts.
At Mount Holyoke, Hussain not only gained valuable lab experience and developed a strong background in the liberal arts and sciences, but also learned from professors who teach by example.
“MHC has given me role models that I can look up to,” she says. “My advisor [Associate Professor of Physics] Katherine Aidala and professor Audrey St. John are the women I want to be like in ten years. Their support has brought me where I am today.”
Hussain spoke with Aidala about every major academic decision—and some personal ones too—throughout her four years at Mount Holyoke. They worked very closely on research projects, although Hussain also spent more than a year working on the next generation of solar energy cells in physics professor Alexi Arango’s lab.
That experience solidified her interest in energy and power. Once her dual degree is in hand, Hussain hopes to “mesh physics and engineering together to help solve energy problems for communities.” The goal of bringing about deep cultural change stems partly from observing the energy situation in her home city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where the needs are vast and the finances are limited. She is undeterred by the challenges.
“Even though I still see very few female engineers, I am able to remind myself of what MHC has taught me,” she says. “And one of those lessons has been to believe in myself and to follow my dreams no matter how difficult the road. The key is not to give up.”
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