Pitt scholar finds success in her computer science work

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Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Neven "Nevine" Abou Gazala at the University of Pittsburgh computer science department has focused on developing ways to preserve computer battery power.
Click photo for larger image.

She has embraced a field of study into which few women dare to venture -- and many take pains to avoid.

But Neven "Nevine" Abou Gazala fosters a philosophy that women should enter this male-dominated kingdom of computer science and claim it as their own. She also hopes to dispel stereotypes that nerds and geeks of the male persuasion are the formidable gods of computer land.

She confirms that few American women enter this field, but those who do can find ample opportunity and success.

In August, Ms. Abou Gazala, 33, expects to land a doctoral degree at the University of Pittsburgh after 61/2 years of graduate studies. By all accounts, she will have little problem landing a teaching position at a prestigious U.S. college or university, where she hopes to continue research in computer power management.

"She is very successful in her work," said Rami Melhem, chairman of Pitt's computer science department. "She has done very good work in power management that's very crucial and gaining importance every day."

Dr. Melhem said Ms. Abou Gazala serves as a department leader among graduate students. She also has a happy marriage and is an accomplished artist. "She shows that you can have it all," he said.

But computer science is a field beset by inaccurate stereotypes of geeks ruling the computing roost. She said she wants to reboot that image to exemplify its potential for women.

Ms. Abou Gazala has carved out space in the field with impressive credentials even before she has earned a doctoral degree.

She has had 10 papers on computer power management published in advance of conferences and workshops along with three journal articles and two book chapters. In addition, she has landed an Andrew Mellon Fellowship and a Josephine de Karman Scholarship.

But her grandest success came in winning a 2006 Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship of $10,000 as an outstanding woman in computer science. Such success leaves her with "a couple offers to think about" after she receives her doctoral degree.

A native of Egypt, Ms. Abou Gazala excelled in mathematics and entered Arab Academy for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Egypt, where she chose to study computer science. She soon received a bachelor's, then a master's degree, in computer engineering.

During her years in Pitt's doctoral program, she focused on developing ways to preserve computer battery power. She created hardware that scales back power consumption in processing and hard-drive memory when tasks being performed require less power. She also produced software that further reduces battery drain.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded the grant she used to create technology that extends battery life up to 150 percent in laptop computers. It is being tested at Pitt. She anticipates large computer manufacturers someday will adopt her technology, which is not yet available in the commercial market.

The technology also can reduce energy consumption in cell phones and other computer-driven devices.

In Egypt, she said, the computer science field had a 70-30 undergraduate ratio of men to women. But that ratio was even more lopsided in the United States. At Pitt, she found, to her surprise, that the field was dominated by men.

Dr. Melhem said his department has only 10 percent women in the undergraduate program but the portion rises to 25 to 35 percent in graduate programs. Women make up 25 percent of the faculty.

"There is nothing at all that makes it a men's domain," he said, noting the need for a psychologist to describe why men dominate the field. "People think it's a men's domain, which physically reinforces it and discourages women from becoming computer science majors. But there's no concrete reason for it."

Ms. Abou Gazala said the stereotype that geeks spend 24 hours a day on the computer is not reality. "In Egypt there is not a sense of geekness in computer science."

Female computer scientists, she said, bring a problem-solving focus to the field.

"I think now we have more opportunity than men in the field," she said. "Everyone wants to recruit women and have good women on the team."

So her mission is clear: Define problems, then tackle them. She said she is seeking a teaching position that will allow her to continue her research in power efficiency with the goal of developing "a laptop that goes 10 days without recharging."

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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