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2017 Techwomen Foster Collaborations at Berkeley Lab and Around the Globe

October 16, 2017

Contact: Linda Vu, lvu@lbl.gov, +1 510.495.2402

Techwomen

2017 Techwomen and their Berkeley Lab mentors. From left to right: Patu Ndango, Rim Abid, Daniela Ushizima and Romy Chakraboty. (Image Courtesy of Daniela Ushizima, Berkeley Lab)

Daniela Ushizima and Romy Chakraborty have a lot in common—they’re both staff scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), active members of the Lab’s Women Scientists & Engineers Council and have a passion for empowerment through education.

As colleagues, they often talked about what they were working on—Ushizima in the Computational Research Division’s (CRD’s) Data Analytics and Visualization Group and Chakraborty in the Earth & Environmental Science Area’s Ecology Department. Both admire the other’s work and have been looking for opportunities to collaborate. This month that opportunity arose with the arrival of two TechWomen, Patu Ndango from Cameroon and Rim Abid from Tunisia. 

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, TechWomen is an international exchange program that brings emerging women leaders in science, technology, engineer and mathematics (STEM) from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East together with their professional counterparts in the U.S. and gives them access to networks, resources and industry contacts.

During their stay in the Bay Area, each participant is matched with a professional mentor, and together they work on a mutually beneficial project. Ushizima and Chakraborty are co-mentoring Ndango, while Abid is being co-mentored by Ushizima and Jackie Scoggins of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center's (NERSC's) Operation Technology Group. 

In Cameroon Ndango founded Closed-Loop System Ventures, a startup that deals with the collection of organic waste from households, markets, restaurants and farmland and transforms it into organic fertilizer. At Berkeley Lab she is working with Chakraborty to get hands on experience with cutting-edge composting technologies.

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2017 Techwomen and their Berkeley Lab mentors. (Photo by Marilyn Chung, Berkeley Lab)

“Science has progressed quite a bit in the area of composting technologies” says Chakraborty. “For Patu to be successful in her business, she has to prove to others that her product is good quality, better for growing plants, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than buying commercial fertilizers. So we are introducing her to people and both low and high tech tools that can help her do this.”

For her composting business, Ndango also needs to show that her product is free of common pathogens like coliforms, which can contaminate crops and make people sick. That’s when Ushizima saw an opportunity to connect.

“One of my UC Berkeley colleagues from Bioengineering Department, Dan Fletcher has been working on CellScope, a technology that turns the camera of a mobile phone or tablet computer into a high-quality light microscope. I thought this might be a great tool for Patu’s work,” says Ushizima. “We also had several codes and prototype software to identify abnormal cells from digital microscopy images, which   we are adapting to identify pathogens like E.coli in bacterial cultures.”

Pattern recognition software is a big part of Ushizima’s research at Berkeley Lab and as a Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS) fellow. In fact, her mentorship project with Abid has involved building a pattern recognition pipeline to study cells. But when she heard about Ndango’s work, she thought this was an ideal collaboration and an excellent opportunity to show the TechWomen Emerging Leaders how interdisciplinary research works at Berkeley Lab.

In Tunisia, Abid is a Mathematics Professor at the Preparatory Institute for Scientific and Technical Studies based at Carthage University. She wanted to use her time at Berkeley Lab to expand her skill set and found Ushizima’s computer vision and pattern recognition work extremely interesting. Collaborating with Ndango seemed ideal because they both speak fluent French and Ndango’s fertilizer work can give Abid data to run through her pattern recognition pipeline. Abid is also working with Scoggins to learn how to apply supercomputing to her work.

“The things that I’m learning from my Techwomen mentors are not directly connected to the math work that I am doing at home, but it’s giving me ideas for projects that I can pursue in the future,” says Abid. “I’m extremely interested in learning more about image analysis, I can see how this can turn into a useful and cheap tool to analyze bacteria cultures and prevent sickness.”

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2017 Techwomen tour the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Berkeley Lab. (Photo by Marilyn Chung, Berkeley Lab)

“For me Techwomen was a great opportunity to go out and experience things outside of my home country, to network and learn about what others are doing. I’m planning to apply the techniques that I’ve learned here to set up quality testing for my compost,” says Ndango. “Berkeley Lab is turning out to be a great mentorship fit for me because I’ve met a lot of people who have in turn connected me to other people that have offered me resources and advice that I can use to make my business successful.”

“Before this project I would have never thought to work with anyone in CRD because I didn’t know of anyone with overlapping interests. It’s been very interesting to learn about Dani’s world through Patu and vice versa,” says Chakraborty. “Because of Patu’s work, Dani and I now have concrete ideas for future collaborations.”

Eventually, the women hope to incorporate the results of this collaboration into a paper for publication about quality control methods for constrained environments.

“What I enjoy most about the Techwomen program is the cultural exchange and learning from the mentees,” says Scoggins. “At one of the cultural events where the women introduced themselves and their countries to us, I felt like I had traveled the world without ever leaving the room.”

In addition to Abid and Ndango, other Techwomen at Berkeley Lab this year are Nouha Ben Massaoud (Tunisia), who is working in the Molecular Foundry with Teresa Williams; and Anara Molkenova (Kazakhstan), Rasha Sukkarieh (Lebanon) and Mariam Elnahrawi (Egypt), who are all working with Hanna Breunig, Larry Dale and Reshma Singh in the Energy Technologies Area.

More about the 2017 Techwomen at Berkeley Lab: https://berkeleylab.exposure.co/berkeley-lab-welcomes-2017-techwomen.