2012 was a big year for Unaiza Ahsan. That summer, she married Tech student Munzir Zafar. And, that fall, she began her doctoral studies at Georgia Tech's College of Computing.
“It was a huge transition, coming from Pakistan and having never lived in the U.S.,” she said. “It was a complete change of culture. Being on my own, managing the house, and the Ph.D. on top of that was daunting. When I look back, I’m glad I didn’t know a lot of what the Ph.D. really required because I would never have gone down the path. I would have been scared off,” she laughed.
But Ahsan didn’t run away. She is graduating with a Ph.D. in Computer Science, focusing on computer vision, and her husband is graduating with a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering, specializing in robotics.
Ahsan and Zafar were born in Karachi, Pakistan, but they didn’t know each other. They met briefly as undergraduates, but went their separate ways and graduated from different schools. She earned a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications from NED University of Engineering & Technology. Zafar attended the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) and earned a degree in electronic engineering. They didn’t keep in touch as undergraduates, but he remembered her. Years later he looked her up, they reconnected and became engaged.
Ahsan said she had always wanted to go into academia and conduct research. She had become interested in computer vision while earning a master’s in computer and information systems, also at NED University. So, pursuing a Ph.D. was next — and she had just become engaged to Zafar, a Fulbright Scholar at Georgia Tech.
“So, of course, my top choice for a Ph.D. was Georgia Tech,” she said. “It was a seamless transition from the work I had done at the end of my master’s study.”
Ahsan broadly describes computer vision as a way of getting machines to understand the surrounding environment.
“We try to feed, for example, photographs and videos to the computer and teach it to recognize what is happening,” she said.
She defended her thesis last fall, and in February she joined Home Depot as a data scientist on the core recommendations team. Her current project is for the Home Depot website, designing recommendation algorithms for generating collections of products for customers shopping online.
“They have a huge amount of data, and you can do interesting recommendations based on the data you have,” Ahsan said. “Thankfully, I have the right combination of skills that they needed — computer vision expertise and some natural language processing experience — so, I can combine those skills to help recommend products based on what the customer is shopping for at the moment. So far, I am really enjoying myself!”
Zafar studies robotics and is interested in designing control algorithms for generating stable, safe, and useful behaviors of robotic systems.
His interest in robotics began during his undergraduate years. He wanted to pursue a field that has direct application and widespread support in Pakistan, because he and Ahsan plan to establish a working collaboration with their home country through academia and/or entrepreneurship.
“It won’t be difficult to have a career in robotics in Pakistan,” he said.
Ahsan said she dreams of going back into academia someday.
Georgia Tech Computer Science Ph.D. candidate Unaiza Ahsan (left) shares research results from a Data Science for Social Good Atlanta project in July 2016.
“I have seen successful examples of people who have one foot in academia and one foot in industry. It has worked out wonderfully for some of our faculty,” she said. “If that option opens up, I can definitely pursue that.”
Among the things Ahsan will miss most about Georgia Tech are the aura of campus life and having access to the latest research journals and papers. Zafar, who defended his thesis this month and will be hooded in the fall, said he will miss the people he worked with, conducting research, and spending time with the robots.
Ahsan said she is most excited about the Ph.D. hooding ceremony at Commencement.
“For me, it’s a very big deal because there were so many times during the program that I thought: ‘I’m never going to be able to do it.’ So, the hooding ceremony is a formal acknowledgement that I made it.”
Ahsan’s aunt from Pakistan will attend the ceremony. Her parents and Zafar’s parents will watch the livestream from Pakistan.