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Programming Progress: Hamna Zaheer's empowering journey in STEM

Institute for Water Resources
Published March 26, 2024
Updated: March 26, 2024
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (March 26, 2024) -- As we honor the women who paved the way for progress throughout history, we also take note of the history makers who are among us today. In this Institute for Water Resources Women's History Month feature, get to know Hamna Zaheer's story through STEM and how her journey lights a path for others to follow.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (March 26, 2024) -- As we honor the women who paved the way for progress throughout history, we also take note of the history makers who are among us today. In this Institute for Water Resources Women's History Month feature, get to know Hamna Zaheer's story through STEM and how her journey lights a path for others to follow.

Please tell me about your position here at IWR and how it contributes to the overall mission.

As a Computer Scientist at IWR, I am deeply committed to our organization's mission, as articulated on the IWR website, which emphasizes providing forward-looking analysis and research to enhance planning methodologies for Civil Works. It has been a source of immense pride for me to contribute my technical expertise towards the advancement of this mission. In my role, I have been intricately involved in numerous projects, where I have provided technical guidance, contributed to development and testing processes, formulated scopes of work, and offered recommendations on optimal practices and technical pathways. Notably, my involvement extended to the e-Risk Register (e-RR), a tool recognized as the WRC Product of the Year for 2024, highlighting our commitment to innovation and excellence. Furthermore, I serve as the Contracting Officer's Representative (COR) for USACE enterprise project management software, a system of significant prominence within the USACE. This responsibility highlights my dedication to ensuring the successful execution of critical projects and systems essential to our organizational objectives.

What has been an accomplishment that you are especially proud of, or pleased with?

Serving as the Deputy Secretary of PIANC USA stands out as a significant accomplishment that fills me with immense pride. This role presented a unique challenge that required me to venture outside my comfort zone, pushing me to grow both personally and professionally. It was a deeply enriching experience to contribute to an esteemed organization dedicated to pioneering innovations in the planning, design, construction, improvement, maintenance, and operation of ports and waterways. During my tenure, I encountered a steep learning curve, but the exposure to diverse responsibilities within a condensed timeframe proved invaluable. Despite moments of self-doubt, I persevered, determined to make meaningful contributions. Reflecting on my journey, I take pride in overcoming obstacles and seizing opportunities for growth, ultimately achieving success in my role.

Can you share about a challenge that you overcame and how it helped you in the long run?

Navigating Imposter Syndrome has been a challenge in my journey as a woman in the Computer Science field. Initially, I faced feelings of doubt and insecurity, questioning whether I truly belonged and if my contributions held merit. However, through introspection and perseverance, I have embarked on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Gradually, I have come to acknowledge and appreciate my unique skills and talents, realizing the inherent value I bring to the table. This newfound perspective has been transformative, empowering me to advocate for myself and assert my worth in professional settings.

What path led you to getting into this STEM field?

Coming from a South Asian background, the societal expectation of pursuing a prestigious career in medicine initially influenced my career considerations. Initially, I contemplated entering the medical field, as it was the path most revered in my community. However, upon introspection, I realized that a lifelong commitment to medicine did not align with my passions and aspirations. From a young age, I harbored a deep fascination for STEM subjects, recognizing the potential for innovation and impact within these fields. Technology, in particular, captivated my interest, prompting me to explore the realm of Computer Science during my university years. It was during this time that I discovered my passion for the field, finding fulfillment in the process of developing software tools aimed at simplifying and enhancing various aspects of our lives.

Can you tell me about a role model or mentor who inspired you or helped you as you followed this path?

During my academic journey pursuing both my Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Computer Science, I encountered significant challenges in finding a mentor or role model who resonated with my experiences as a woman in a predominantly male-dominated field. With over 90% of my classmates and professors being male, I often found myself questioning my decision to pursue this career path. However, upon entering the professional realm, I was fortunate to find a remarkable mentor in my supervisor. She not only exemplified the leadership qualities I aspired to cultivate but also demonstrated unwavering belief in my capabilities. Under her guidance, I found the confidence to embrace my authentic self and overcome the self-doubt that had previously hindered my progress.

What is your “why”, meaning, what motivates you to continue to pursue this career?

The driving force behind my commitment to a career in Computer Science encompasses two distinct yet interconnected motivations. Firstly, I am deeply passionate about staying in touch with emerging technologies and leveraging them to develop innovative solutions that enhance our daily lives. The ever-evolving landscape of technology presents boundless opportunities for creativity and problem-solving, fueling my enthusiasm to explore new possibilities and push the boundaries of what is achievable.

Secondly, maintaining a harmonious work-life balance has always been paramount to me, particularly in ensuring that I can actively participate in and support my family life. Pursuing a career in Computer Science has afforded me the flexibility to embrace remote or hybrid work arrangements, allowing me to prioritize both my professional aspirations and personal commitments without compromise. This flexibility has been instrumental in enabling me to be fully present for my family and children while pursuing a fulfilling and rewarding career in a field that I am genuinely passionate about.

What would you say to other females interested in this career?

My heartfelt advice to aspiring female Computer Scientists is to trust your abilities and follow your passion, regardless of any discouraging voices you may encounter. Refuse to be limited by outdated stereotypes or societal expectations. You have the power to define your own path and shape your future. Believe in yourself, for you are capable, you are worthy, and you are more than enough.

When you aren’t doing what you do at work, what do you enjoy doing?

When I am not working, I enjoy various activities such as embracing motherhood, cooking, cherishing moments with my family, engaging in meaningful conversations with my sisters, embarking on adventures through travel, experimenting with makeup, delving into research on any and every topic, and watching shows with women as leads.

What does Women’s History Month mean to you? And who do you particularly admire that reflects the spirit of this observance?

Women's History Month resonates deeply with me, as it serves as a tribute to the extraordinary accomplishments of trailblazing women throughout history. Learning about the remarkable journeys of these women instills in me a sense of solidarity and strength, reminding me of the immense strides that can be achieved through perseverance and determination. Their stories serve as beacons of hope, motivating me to redouble my efforts and make a meaningful impact in my own endeavors. Moreover, Women's History Month fuels my commitment to shaping a brighter future for the generations to come. By working tirelessly to effect positive change, I endeavor to create a world where every woman can confidently pursue her dreams and achieve limitless success. As a mother to a vibrant and promising three-year-old daughter, I am filled with hope and optimism for the future. Witnessing the boundless potential within our young girls, I am committed to fostering an environment where they can thrive and excel in their chosen pursuits.

Brené Brown comes to mind as someone who embodies the spirit of Women History Month through her dedication to empowering women and promoting vulnerability as a strength. She has inspired countless women to embrace their imperfections, speak their truths, and pursue their goals. I love how she has shown women how to unapologetically be themselves and to not be afraid to take up the space. Listening to her podcast has been transformational for me personally and highly encourage everyone else to check her work out too.