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Mashrura Musharraf: You don’t get to see a lot of women like me in academic leadership positions

In this ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Assistant Professor of Marine Technology Mashrura Musharraf shares how she feels about representation, darkness and winter, the balance between work and family, and building a network in a new country and university.
Mashrura Musharraf, photo by by Jaakko Kahilaniemi
Photos by Jaakko Kahilaniemi, interview by Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

What was your path to Aalto?

I’m originally from Bangladesh, and I did my undergraduate degree in computer science and engineering. For two years, I worked as a software engineer in Bangladesh. I started looking for master’s opportunities and I got a full funding scholarship from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. After my master’s studies I continued to a PhD, and during my postdoc I wanted to see if I liked teaching as much as I like research. I taught a couple of courses and found that I love teaching, too.

I started applying for academic positions, and Aalto was a little bit out of the blue. I thought I wouldn’t fit that well because it was a marine technology position. I didn’t apply, but then someone from recruitment reached out, and I took my chances. I came to Finland in 2021 with my husband and a one-year-old child.

My journey so far has been a very exciting and rewarding one, but in many parts, it also felt a bit lonely.

Mashrura Musharraf

What is your research about?

During my master’s and PhD, I mostly worked with the human element of marine safety – how we can train people better. I was part of a team that was investigating how to develop more efficient training by applying technologies, such as a simulator. I started to realise that we have tons of data that we’re not using to make training more personalised, and I transferred into data analysis and data mining.

I’m a computer engineer, so I was excited as the concept of autonomous ships was starting to become more real, but I was also kind of scared about how it’s getting done in practise. I finished my PhD in 2018 and I was thinking about how to apply machine learning, AI, and all these technologies in the automation transition. That was the same year when the first self-driving Uber accident happened. And I was very surprised when they blamed the person who was sitting in the backseat. They made all these claims about how making things automatic would remove human error, but they were still blaming the human!

That was the motivation for my current work. In marine technology, we’re not talking about removing humans. We expect humans and machine to work together and collaborate for a safer and more efficient shipping. I still probably know more about humans than ships.

Mashrura Musharraf, photo by Jaakko Kahilaniemi

What was the beginning of your journey in Finland like?

There were a couple of surprises. I didn’t know that nobody in Finland works in July. I started in June and by 23 June everybody had left. Here I was and nobody was around.

Right before everyone left, I had a meeting with the dean at the time, Gary Marquis. He mentioned that the Academy of Finland project application deadline was in September. I decided to give it a try, even though I had no idea how it worked. And at the same time, I was also trying to read and learn to be able to teach a course in mechanical engineering. That was new to me, since I’m from a computer engineering background. Concurrently, I was also doing a few pedagogical courses for my own development as a teacher.

Honestly, I don’t know how I thought it could be possible, but I did put in my research application at quite the last moment. I remember my kid and I both were having our fifth round of flu in the submission week. So, things were a bit a blurry then. But somehow, I got the grant! I guess life has its own way of supporting us.

Can you share what made you succeed with the application in the very beginning?

A new job, new country, and my first child – I was juggling too many new things at the same time. So, when my child came back with his fifth ear infection, I thought that this is too much.

However, I was working with a postdoc at the time. She was looking for opportunities to work with grant applications, and I really needed help! So, we went through a brainstorming process together, talked about things, and it got me excited. It was nice to share it with someone.

But there was a day when I woke up and I had a meeting scheduled with her. I was planning to tell her that I’m not going to do this. I showed up and she was telling me that the application was really, really good. I don’t know if she was just trying to give me confidence, but she was excited, telling me that I should really submit it. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I’m considering not going forward. She was so passionate from reading the draft.

That night, I still felt that there was no way I could make it happen. But my husband reminded me that I excel at things that bring me joy, so I should just focus on the research idea and not worry about the outcome of the grant application. So, I just completed the application the best I could and learned in the process that sometimes done is better than perfect.

Mashrura Musharraf, photo by Jaakko Kahilaniemi

What is it like to walk in your shoes?

I think my shoes are quite unique, and so is my path. You don’t get to see a lot of women like me, a non-white female from Bangladesh, in academic leadership positions. Especially in a male-dominated field like marine technology.

It’s been rewarding to see that I’ve inspired a few young women with my journey. I’ve heard my students saying, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ That’s the best part of my job – I’m happy to be that someone. I am leading an all-female team at the moment, and I get asked if I prefer female candidates. I don’t, the fact is just that I get many more female applicants than my other colleagues. And I feel very fortunate that I can help them see how good they are and what they can do.

At Memorial, my supervisors and the group helped me see what I could be even before I had any idea of how to do things. But thinking back to my childhood in Bangladesh, I would probably have not seen myself where I am now. I heard a lot about what I couldn’t do and very little of what I could. But I had a very supportive family, and maybe that’s why I ended up where I am, no matter what everybody else was saying. That gave me confidence when I needed it the most.

So, my journey so far has been a very exciting and rewarding one, but in many parts, it also felt a bit lonely.

If you have experienced ice breaking in social situations, can you share the story?

Last year I was working on a big Strategic Research Council application, and that was my first time leading a consortium of five or six people. Nobody invited me in for a proposal because nobody knew I existed in Finland. So, I gathered some ideas and reached out to a few people, and most of them said yes. But it was quite a lot of work. I usually do well in writing, like getting ideas and putting them together, but I struggle with managing people and projects.

After I submitted the application, I had lunch with a colleague. I told her that I felt like I was recovering from surgery or something. The application took everything out of me. When I came back in the afternoon, I got a message from her saying that nobody ever shared that perspective with her. She also feels that way after every application and hearing me say it out loud made her feel seen and heard.

So, I think being your authentic self and sharing how we truly feel brings us closer as humans. It’s also something to be patient with. I’m slowly building my network.

It takes time to make friends at my age. I’ve approached this from different perspectives. I’ve found a few people who I can talk with about computer science, machine learning and AI. And I’ve also approached colleagues to have lunch and talk about how our toddlers behaved in the morning. Aalto hosted our accommodation at Aalto Inn for the first six months, and that was helpful. I made some good friends there who were also new. They were going through similar struggles.

In my own little team, I’m trying to build a culture where we celebrate small moments. I always take time to thank people for things and tell someone when they’ve done something good.

I think being your authentic self and sharing how we truly feel brings us closer as humans.

Mashrura Musharraf

What would you like to develop at Aalto?

Overall, my colleagues at Aalto have been very supportive of my journey. One thing that I would recommend is to improve the onboarding process for international staff. As I just went through my first evaluation, I realized that I could have done better if I had a more detailed onboarding discussion – the rules, ranking of the publications and other tenure track criteria. These things vary from country to country, and you don’t know them if you’re not from Finland.

As part of the equity, diversity, and inclusion committee at the School of Engineering, I’m active in making our teaching, research, and services better in these respects.

This is your third winter in Finland now. How do you feel about it?

November was hard. I think it was dark all the time. I came to work in the dark and I went home in the dark. The first year it hit me hard, and the second year was maybe a little bit better. But this year I’ve been very mindful about things. I’m taking my vitamin D and doing my workouts.

I’m not a very outgoing or adventurous person and not a winter person either, but now with my three-year old boy, I’m exploring what we can do together. I’m taking him for walks, and we build snowmen together. He’s teaching me how to enjoy winter.

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Walk in my shoes

If you would like to share your story for the Walk in My Shoes series, please contact Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne. Walk in my shoes is part of the Aalto Cultural Development project led by Carita Pihlman.

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