MU College of Engineering student chosen as first recipient of EWF fellowship

The fellowship is the result of a partnership between the MU College of Engineering and the Executive Women’s Forum.

Rumana Aktar, seen here with Dean Elizabeth Loboa, recently was selected as the first-ever recipient of the Executive Women’s Forum fellowship. Courtesy of Rumana Aktar

MU graduate student Rumana Aktar is the first recipient of the Executive Women’s Forum fellowship, which is a full-tuition, five-year doctoral scholarship.

First announced in December 2016, the fellowship is a partnership between the College of Engineering and Executive Women’s Forum to aid female doctoral students in computer science, particularly those of underrepresented backgrounds. Aktar said her selection to the fellowship came as a surprise.

“My professor had told me that I needed to meet with the dean for some kind of interview about the fellowship,” Aktar said. “He accompanied me to talk with the dean of engineering, Dr. Elizabeth Loboa. I thought I was going to an interview, so I prepared like people do before an interview. But when she actually opened the door, she welcomed me as the recipient. I didn’t know I was already selected, so that was really surprising and really amazing.”

EWF is a nationwide organization that encourages female leaders in information technology, particularly risk management, privacy and security. Loboa contacted the organization and suggested creating a Ph.D. fellowship.

“I went to one of the EWF meetings and found out EWF was doing these types of fellowships with Carnegie Mellon students, but only at the master’s level,” Loboa said. “I talked to [EWF] about doing [the fellowship] at the Ph.D. level because the way we’re going to get more underrepresented populations and women in this field, and in engineering in general, is if we have more in academia to teach the next generation.”

Aktar finished her master’s degree in May 2017 at the MU College of Engineering and is currently a Ph.D. student. Originally from Bangladesh, her background in computer science stemmed from an early love for math. Prior to enrolling at the MU College of Engineering, she graduated from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering.

“During my undergrad, I was exposed to different computer science techs, like image processing and artificial intelligence,” Aktar said. “I wanted to continue my higher education, my Ph.D. and masters, in this area. I found Mizzou and [professor Kannappan Palaniappan], who is doing research in this area. I talked to him and he seemed very nice. Everything fit: his research, my interests; they all really aligned. That’s why I picked Mizzou.”

Her current work is focused on internet security and computer vision, which involves processing and analyzing images.

“Our lab focuses on computer vision research. Currently I am working toward activity recognition and multispectral tracking in aerial video which has potential applications in security, traffic safety, agriculture, biomedical data and more." Aktar said in an email. "In addition to that we are trying to do multimedia security, for example, ensuring the authenticity of video source, secure video streaming among distributed network resources."

Aktar said her application process began in April 2017 and concluded around mid-May. She was chosen out of a pool of about a dozen eligible candidates by a committee from the College of Engineering. Her selection was then forwarded to an EWF selection committee and the dean of engineering, Palaniappan said.

Palaniappan is a professor and interim department chair at the College of Engineering and has worked with Aktar since she joined his research team in January 2016. He encouraged her to apply for the fellowship.

“She was a new student in my group, and she was interested in image processing and computer vision, as well as its application in security and privacy,” Palaniappan said. “I thought she'd be a good fit for the scholarship, so I encouraged her to apply.”

Palaniappan recommended Aktar for the fellowship for several reasons, but he cited a personal statement written by Aktar for another scholarship as a prime example of why he chose her.

“In her statement, she said that she came from a very rural background, and she could see how much education makes a difference on young girls,” he said. “If given the opportunity, she wanted to be able to help women in a greater global context in other developing societies as well.”

Aktar added that the fellowship ensures her continuation into her Ph.D., a degree that usually requires a “good motivator.” She has high hopes for the program beyond the financial benefits, such as the networking opportunities, mentorships, leadership workshops and attending the annual EWF conference.

“Not only does it provide me with financial support, but it also provides mentorship support with an EWF person who is already has an upper-level career in IT,” Aktar said. “You get to know all these women leaders who are doing good work in IT, and it's a great opportunity and privilege to spend time with them, talk about their struggles and successes. I think it is going to shape my career in a really positive direction.”

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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