We’re proud to announce our most recent recipient of the Thriver Prize for Computer Science: Lana El Sanyoura! A huge inspiration for all women in tech, Lana is a University of Toronto graduate and recipient of the John H Moss Scholarship for her work in computer science. Last week she met with Prime Minister Trudeau to deliver a joint address to graduates across Canada, and we’re here to dig a little deeper into what makes her so inspiring.
Tell us about yourself!
I’m a Computer Science and Cognitive Science Grad from UofT, and I’m really passionate about using technology to build impactful and immediate solutions to the problems we find around us. But I’m also drawn to cognitive science because I’m interested in how the mind works and how we can use mediums of linguistic expression to understand the mind. There’s a big overlap between cognitive science and artificial intelligence, and I’m trying to understand how we can use psychology and cognition to build better algorithms, and how we can use algorithms to learn about the mind.
My undergrad career was filled with industry and academic research, which gave me a good idea of the work I’m interested in doing. I was able to get the best of both worlds by completing an internship with Amazon this summer and starting my masters at U of T with a focus on computational social science, using big data science to understand users and bridge the gap between AI and society.
How did you originally discover an interest in computer science?
I always knew I would be ingrained in the science world. My family immigrated here when I was in grade 11, and we were late for course enrolment. Computer science was one of the only classes left and I remember telling my mom, “I don’t even know what computer science is.” I took the course and loved it. When it was time to apply to university, I realized a major in computer engineering meant a set schedule without a lot of breadth to what I could do; but with computer science, I could build products I care about without worrying about the hardware. I’ve always loved taking on a project and seeing it from start to finish.
I started teaching programming workshops to students from various disciplines at U of T. I also learned that AI and machine-learning courses were only available to students in their third year, so I joined the AI club and we built a student-run curriculum as a free extracurricular course for first and second year students, which is now being taught. It’s so rewarding to be introducing students to AI earlier, and opening them up to more opportunities.
What is Hello Girl?
During university, my friend and I started a club for the women in our program. We felt like we needed a stronger community socially, so we would go out to dinner, have donut-meets every other week, go to hackathons together. I also joined the computer science student union with a goal of making the community more inclusive to us. We developed a code of conduct, talked about the importance of respect and inclusivity, and held a lot of events and townhall discussions. It’s beautiful to see a group of people who are passionate and pay it forward, and it’s so encouraging that two years later those events are still happening.
Within the computer science field, have you found yourself in situations or discussions that focus on the fact that you’re a woman?
The computer science degree at U of T is very competitive, so I had people in high school tell me I only got in because I’m a girl, and they were filling a quota. I also had people tell me that I shouldn’t be studying computer science because it’s not very feminine or fitting for a woman.
Starting a new career, these comments can be very damaging. But I needed to have the confidence that I succeeded due to my own skills. Doubting myself because of what others were saying would take away from everything that I’ve accomplished and I’m lucky that I was able to bounce back and brush off their criticisms.
I was a TA in my third year and made a point of going out to panel events and giving presentations about my industry and extracurricular experiences. I wanted the women and men in the room to see that yes, there are women in tech doing incredible things; just bringing more awareness to the fact that gender does not dictate how intelligent or accomplished you can be.
You’re also a songwriter, choreographer, filmmaker, photographer, basketball player – what motivates you to pursue all of these avenues?
I’ve always loved those pursuits as a form of self-expression. But if I want to do something, I want to make sure I’m challenging myself to make it the best I can make it. In university, I knew the potential I had and how far I could push myself. This is how I pushed myself to apply for internships and scholarships too, because my motto has always been to be the best me I can be, and the best me would get that scholarship.
I applied for the Thriver prize in computer science last year and didn’t receive the award. Instead of saying, “Oh, I guess I don’t have what it takes,” I decided to work harder; improve my portfolio, add more research and teaching experience, and try again. And I’m so glad I did.
Has your family impacted your motivation?
Definitely. My mom taught English in Lebanon and when we moved here she got her masters. My dad was an engineer with a vision others couldn’t see, so he left his job and built his own company. My parents taught me that anything you want to do, you can succeed at, if you just work really hard.
It was so rewarding to see my mom get to meet Justin Trudeau. With tears in her eyes she said, “Your speech made me cry, thank you so much for all that Canada has done for us.” And he said, “Thank you for what you’ve done for Lana.”
Applying the guidance you gave in your recent address to Canadian graduates, where do you see yourself in five years?
What’s incredible about working in technology is that your product can be in the hands of millions of people. But that also means that the technology you build needs to be accessible and inclusive. It can’t be biased. It needs to do good for the people you’re serving. When I ask myself, “How can I use my skills as a graduate to make a difference?” I hope to be creating technology that will benefit the lives of people using it.
What’s the best part of being a woman in tech?
Diversity is so important when you’re building technology that needs to be accessible to everyone. Take cars, for example. Cars were once created and tested exclusively by men, until manufacturers realized that the way cars were built wasn’t safe for women. So the women’s perspective was lacking, which actually impacted the lives of women driving these cars, because they weren’t part of the narrative when design decisions were being made.
There is no intrinsic difference in capabilities between women and men, but women add a unique and important perspective. Plus, having diverse perspectives also creates an environment that allows people to challenge each other and bring different ideas, which in turn, creates a better product.
Wise words from a bright, driven, young mind. We love a go-getter like Lana, and we couldn’t think of a more deserving recipient of the Thriver Prize. Championing women in tech is something we’re always passionate about, and meeting Lana has inspired all of us to aim even higher.