Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Hello, I’m Sarra Laksaci, originally from Algeria and moved to Belgium in 2021. I live in Brussels and study in Louvain-la-Neuve where I’m pursuing a masters in Computer Science specialized in AI. This June, (2023), I will be graduating and I cannot wait to be an AI engineer.
Before joining my current program at UCLouvain, I studied 4 years of CS at USTHB in Algiers which brings me to my 6th year of CS already (time flies). The first half of my training was mostly focused on software engineering I would say. I first learned about Artificial Intelligence near the end of my bachelor's studies, through online articles and a local student workshop. It was love at first sight, and I was immediately drawn to the field. It really fascinated me (and still does to this day as I discover more opportunities for the use of AI solutions and learn new approaches to implement them.) It motivated me to pick an AI related topic for my bachelor thesis which was about classification of OCT scans to identify a subset of macular oedemas.
Since then Artificial intelligence has been at the center of what I do, be it my studies, my personal projects or the talks I give as I love public speaking.
What is your major and what does a typical day look like for you?
As a CS masters student my typical semester day (outside of lectures) involves lots of coding on different projects either in Java when it comes to optimization projects, Python when it is ML related and R in the context of a BioInformatics class. Some are solo projects while others are group projects, in which case I would allocate my week-end afternoons for team calls to discuss each member’s advancement and/or problems and dive into live coding to fix any existing bugs.
Currently I allocate most of my time to my masters thesis. I work on a Computer Vision topic which is the identification of fire salamander individuals. Fire salamanders have unique spot patterns on their backs, the same way each one of us has unique fingerprints, which allows for their identification. The aim of my project is to use CV techniques namely image segmentation and image matching to automate this task. My day is thus split between fine-tuning my current segmentation model and labeling additional data points to grow my dataset, before moving on to the next step.
How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?
I love spending my free time on relaxing activities such as reading, drawing or painting. I especially picked up reading comics again, moving to Belgium really reconnected me with that passion of mine. Comics are at every corner: in bookstores or on wall arts and I can’t get enough of that (even reignited a childhood dream of mine of one day publishing my own comic book, but I’m not quite there yet).
When I’m not home I’m usually wandering around Brussels (or one-train-away cities), visiting current museum exhibitions or trying out new things from pottery to roller skating.
I buy my comics from different stores, but “Utopia” is a favorite of mine for marvel issues. The setup makes me feel like I’m joining Sheldon and Leonard from Big Bang Theory.
What are some of your all time favourite comics?
Broadly speaking, I enjoy comics that teach me about history and one of my favorites in that category is "The Medicine - a graphic history" by Jean-Noël Fabiani. On a completely different note, I am also a fan of the Batman series. Although I still have a lot to discover within that universe, I'm definitely in it for the long run. Currently, my favorite chapters are from the Cataclysm storyline.
What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?
I think math got me here. In high school I attended a TechTalk event out of curiosity and I remember thinking that computer science was “not for me” as it seemed too complex and a little bit scary. However, I loved math so I decided to pursue a Bsc in “Math & Computer Science” and as I delved deeper into coding I realized that it was, in fact, the perfect fit for me.
If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?
Don't panic over what you don't know. You'll learn it one step at a time.
When I first started in the world of coding, I was intimidated by its seemingly infinite nature. The more I learned, the more I realized there was still so much I did not know, and it felt overwhelming. Now I understand that this is just part of the process and what makes coding enjoyable. I now view life as a continuous learning experience, and I embrace the unknown instead of fearing it.
Are there any particular women in tech who have inspired you?
Yes, I would first mention Pauline Narvas: a UK blogger who majored in Biomedical Sciences with a passion for coding.
When I first started out as a CS student she started her journey in the tech community and documented her experience: the learning process, the setbacks and the support from her local community “CodeFirstGirls”. As she grew as a coder, public speaker and workshop trainer it inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and do the same. Pauline also worked on a series of “inspiring figures“ posts featuring lots of women in tech, which introduced me to the online community of female coders.
Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?
- The Batch, newsletter by DeepLearning.AI
- Lex Fridman Podcast: Lex Fridman is a CS researcher who I first discovered through his MIT lectures on Deep Learning. His podcast, however, is much more than just DL as he welcomes professionals from a range of fields.
- Computerphil. It’s the type of Youtube channel from which I can randomly select a video to watch and learn something new (a concept or an algorithm) in under 20 minutes.
How did you come up with your thesis topic of identifying fire salamander spot patterns?
My thesis topic of identifying fire salamanders by spot patterns was suggested by my supervisor, Professor Bonaventure. As a member of Natagora*, a Wallonian association that frequently discusses the decreasing population of salamanders due to habitat change or loss, he recognized the need for a more efficient method to monitor and track the salamanders. The merit goes to him for coming up with the idea.
Personally, I find the field of animal individual identification through computer vision fascinating. From tiger stripes to shark fin contour*, CV is opening the door to non-harmful alternatives to capture-recapture practices. In addition to the technical learning it would provide, what really motivated me to choose this topic for my thesis was the potential impact it could have in preserving the ecosystem.
Salamanders are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment, which makes them a great bio-indicator, giving scientists valuable insight into how an ecosystem is functioning. By being able to accurately and non-invasively identify individual salamanders, we can more effectively monitor their populations and better understand the impact of environmental changes. This research has the potential to contribute to the conservation of salamanders, and by extension, the ecosystems they inhabit.
(*) Natagora's website .
(*) An interesting article about current advances in animal identification
Did you face any struggles related to tech during your studies so far?
I sure did during my first years as a CS student. When you start out you kind of get an ocean worth of new technologies dropped on you and you could rapidly feel like you’re drowning. As you follow different courses, most of them require different tools you don’t know just yet so it can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, it’s the kind of struggle that you can brush off once you get your momentum. Once you learn how to read documentations and have confidence in your skills, picking up new tools is a matter of time rather than a tsunami.
What’s next after you graduate? (are you taking some time off? Immediately diving into job hunting?)
Definitely job hunting. I am very eager to jump into the professional world, face new challenges and put my problem-solving skills to the test.
What kind of job are you aiming for after graduating?
I'm actually pretty excited about the idea of working as a Computer Vision engineer after I graduate. I was trained as an AI engineer in my curriculum, but I found that my real passion lies especially in the computer vision field. I think it's fascinating to use advanced techniques to come up with innovative solutions to practical problems based on visual data (vision always fascinated me, as a teenager I briefly considered pursuing medical studies to specialize in ophthalmology).
As a Computer Vision engineer, I'd be responsible for developing and implementing computer vision algorithms and software. I like the idea of staying up to date with the latest research in the field and experimenting with different approaches and software to create practical solutions that can be used in industry.
Overall, I'm really interested in the intersection of research and development, and I think that a career in Computer Vision engineering would be a great way to explore that intersection while also applying my skills to real-world use-cases and satisfying my enthusiasm for CV.
How did you get into public speaking?
I first became interested in public speaking after being inspired by TEDTalks. I love the concept of “Ideas worth sharing” but more importantly I loved the format. It opened my eyes to the power of words, tone and body language in delivering a message. I knew I wanted to try it out for myself, so I began learning about the art of public speaking. I even attended a workshop hosted by a local public speaking club to fine-tune my skills and receive feedback.
Despite my nerves, I decided to take a plunge and apply for my local edition of Ignite, which was a huge event with over 600 people in attendance. It was my first time speaking in front of such a large audience, but I managed to overcome my fears and deliver a successful talk.
Since then, I've continued to pursue opportunities to speak publicly and share my ideas with others. It's an amazing feeling to be able to connect with people and have a real impact through the power of speech.
Do you have any tips for people who might want to start with public speaking?
First, I would tell those who might be scared of taking a first step to: do it scared ! You will definitely surprise yourself once you’re on stage, even if your fear tells you otherwise.(bonus: you’ll feel unstoppable)
In terms of practical tips, I would recommend spending the most time practicing your speech (even more than working on presentation visuals). I typically practice in three parts: first, I record my voice to catch any problem areas. Then, once I am happy with my vocal delivery, I practice in front of a mirror to work on body language and get a feel for being on stage. Finally, I gather 3-4 friends to get feedback on my presentation.
Additionally, a book that I would recommend reading is Talk like TED by Carmin Gallo.
If you had all the time and resources in the world, on what kind of side project would you use it?
“The Dzairia’s”* comic book : I would become an ambassador of Algerian culture. It is something that I try to do on a smaller scale in my day to day life already, because Algerian culture is not very known abroad and that’s a shame. From berberian carpets, jewelry and foods to traditional clothings, the country holds many jewels that are unknown to the many so I would love to shed light on them.
If I had all the time and resources in the world I would allocate them first to learn more about this broad topic, as traditions change from one region to the other, and then share that knowledge through a series of comic books. The first comic would be dedicated to women’s fashion (could be titled The Dzairia’s fashion), which holds a special place in my heart as my older aunts are seamtresses.
*Dzairia means Algerian woman/girl in arabic.
What made you join the women.code(be) community?
I was introduced to women.code(be) by Florian Magera. During a presentation about her work at EVS , she mentioned women.code(be) to encourage female students (in this case me, the only girl in the audience) to join. I was thrilled to find a supportive community of inspiring women in tech to connect with and learn from, exactly what I was searching for.
How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?
From where I stand, I would say that encouraging underrepresented groups to pursue careers in tech is crucial and increasing the visibility of women and minorities within companies should be the first step in that direction. Representation matters, and so in a world where all professors and majority of your classmates are men it’s really easy to feel out of place.
For me, it took reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Meta) and finding inspiration through #WomenInTech bloggers to have confidence in my skills and place in tech. By dropping the boys-club narrative about tech and including women in leadership roles, it will become easier for young girls to consider a career in tech.