A kind of social network that could save lives
by Sharday Mosurinjohn
Sharief Oteafy has a certain fondness for Kingston, and for Queen’s, where he will remain as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Hossam Hassanein since having successfully defended his dissertation on August 12th. Kingston was the first Canadian destination Oteafy landed He met his wife, also a Computer Science PhD candidate, here as well. Over the past five and a half years, the campus and community have been the sites of extraordinary engagement for Oteafy, from initiating a graduate student society for the School of Computing, to creating the annual Queen’s Graduate Society Student Conference, to reinvigorating his fencing practice on a competitive level.
Originally from Egypt, Oteafy came to Queen’s specifically to work with Dr. Hassanein, whose research he was familiar with through the mutual contact of his Master’s supervisor. It was January 2008 when Oteafy first set foot on Queen’s campus, on a frigid New Year’s Day, “the only day that everythingwas closed – including the graduate student residence offices.” Before coming, he had arranged with a fellow student to pick him up and help him get settled, identifying himself as the one who would be wearing a distinctive leather jacket. Stepping off the bus, Oteafy quickly realized that even careful planning still hadn’t prepared him for the bone-chilling experience of Kingston winter. Soon, he had emptied his bag of every wearable article of clothing, making him unrecognizeable to the generous contact who’d offered to pick him up. It turned out to be a long, cold wait, but Oteafy clearly doesn’t begrudge the place for its climate, saying, in fact, that Kingston will always be “an anchoring place” for him and his wife, no matter where in the world their research takes them.
Shortly after arriving, Oteafy was at the mall, collecting some winter gear when he heard “the very distinctive voice” of fencing blades striking one another, and gravitated toward the sound. There was the Queen’s varsity team, fencing right in the middle of the mall. He hadn’t fenced in a decade, but Oteafy talked to the coach, Professor Emeritus Hugh Munby, and began training with the team – typically for a minimum of two hours, four times a week – right away. The team also won the OUA championships 3 years in a row, two of which Oteafy was on it. “Now, thanks to the wonderful time spent with Queen’s Varsity fencing team, I intend to continue my fencing career, possibly competitively, for as long as I can hold my sword. Fencing taught me so many things,” says Oteafy. Chief among them: “respecting your opponent, saluting them at the beginning and the end, and always getting up after falls. The fine art of seeking perfection, given the cards you’re dealt.”
Oteafy himself has a knack for pulling people together cooperatively and inspiring a team – and only some of his strategy, he says grinning, involves the free availability of cookies. In an organization like Queen’s School of Computing, which supports over 140 grad students, there’s a lot of intellectual and social value in knowing what your colleagues are up to, and in having a representative voice to speak your interests. “We had a council,” says Oteafy, “but the impression was that people were pretty apathetic about it.” Oteafy worked with a team, including Dumitru Onceanu and Tim Ginn, to establish the Graduate Computing Society. There was still little interest at first, and “no responses to the initial mailout, except” says Oteafy, smiling wryly, “for one guy who took the opportunity to call me out for starting an initiative he evidently didn’t think was worthwhile.” After currying more student interest, and establishing a budget and a reporting structure, Oteafy set his sights on ensuring long-term continuity. He proposed turning the SGPS club into a society, “like the Law and Education societies,” with mandatory fees to keep it autonomous and self-sustaining. Oteafy’s enthusiasm had obviously become contagious by this point, and after putting it to a referendum, Queen’s School of Computing had its own graduate society, ratified by Queen’s and full of dedicated students competing for executive positions in formal elections. “During this time, we had strong support of our School director, Dr. Selim Akl, and the School manager at the time, Dean McKeown,” recounts Oteafy. “The School has been great to me, over these two years, I received both the Graduate Student Distinguished Service Award and the Ian A. Macleod school award.”
As you might imagine, Oteafy was by this time already on to his next project. With a well-funded student organization, the School of Computing graduate program was poised, Oteafy thought, for its own conference. With several others, he set up a catered, full day program to both bring in speakers and showcase graduate research. “With over one hundred students, there are so many different projects. Magnificent things happen when you begin to see the overlaps,” he avers. This year, the held the fourth installation of the conference in May, with an opening keynote address from the University of Toronto’s Dr. Igor Jurisica, and a closing keynote by McGill University’s Dr. Monty Newborn.
Oteafy’s most recent endeavour has been his entry into Queen’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, where he made it into the school finals. His project, “Establishing Sensing Networks by Reconnecting Old Ones” identifies a way to set up sensing networks on the fly when a sudden accident, health crisis, or natural disaster makes it critical to immediately relay information to emergency services and other authorities who need to respond as quickly as possible. Oteafy’s solution takes advantage of the “knowledge of the masses” by tapping into “devices that offer us a whole pool of sensing communication and processing capabilities” such as smartphones, PDAs, tablets, and similar devices. He has even devised incentive schemes to repay people for using their resources so that while your phone is in your pocket you can be “generating money while you’re helping others.”
The toughest part of working in telecommunications, say Oteafy, is that the field “changes literally every day” on a global scale. Laughing, he affirms it’s necessary to keep on top of everything just to make sure that “someone hasn’t already just done your thesis.” But now that Oteafy’s doctoral research is wrapping up, his attention is turning toward preparation for the job market. Of all the dimensions offered by academic life, Oteafy looks forward to more teaching. Having worked for a time in the corporate world, Oteafy “gave up gladly the rich route” for following in his father’s footsteps toward “the love of teaching.” “My Dad, being a professor of Educational Psychology and mentor over generations, taught me the importance of engaging students in creative thinking processes and never taking their attention and perseverance for granted.”
Although he sheepishly admits he used to be the student “who often fell asleep in class,” at the front of the classroom Oteafy is riveted by the energy of his students. “I still remember my first class, rushing in with notes and slides. Then I was immersed. You forget you’re out of breath and haven’t slept for two days preparing.” Although there’s clearly nothing Oteafy touches that doesn’t benefit from his contribution, teaching, according to the soon-to-be graduate, “there’s no match for how much I love teaching and how much I can contribute by doing it.” According to Oteafy, “remembering how I slept in some classes and the lack of interest in teaching that I have witnessed in some of the professors I’ve met has taught me two things. First, a PhD does not make you a good – let alone a great – teacher. Second, you can follow a paradigm and explain well, but students will only be inspired by professors who entice them to think, synthesize and achieve. Not by spoon-feeding, but through hard work. You can only challenge them if you challenge yourself, and teach them to work around their impediments, just like you’ve done.”