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Students in Focus

Letting go of other people’s expectations and writing your own story

Having nearly completed her PhD at the University of Canberra, Dua’a (Dua) Ahmad firmly believes her life would have been entirely different if she hadn’t settled in Australia.

“I am very grateful for the opportunities and the culture here in Australia,” she says.

Dua’s parents are originally from Iraq. They lived in four countries before settling in Australia – the family initially moved for her father’s work and stayed overseas to avoid the war back in their home country.

“My Dad just wanted to find us a safe place to be, so getting our Australian citizenship changed our lives,” she says.

Dua’s parents both have postgraduate qualifications: her father has a PhD in engineering and worked in academia most of his life, and her mother completed her master’s degree in Islamic Studies, while raising their six children.

“I’m very lucky that both my parents care about education – my mum especially – because she grew up in a place where women never got the opportunity to go to university,” Dua says.

“It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. This time next year, both my sisters, brother and I will have our PhDs, and I credit Australia for giving me an opportunity to complete my thesis.”

After she finished her undergraduate degree at the Australian National University, Dua travelled overseas to visit her parents. The cultural expectation for a woman of her age was that she would find a husband and start a family. One woman discouraged her from further study, saying a man wouldn’t want to marry a woman smarter than him – but Dua wasn’t ready for that anyway.

“I felt like there was more learning and growing to do, and my dad really encouraged me to continue studying,” she says.

She applied to do her master’s degree in the country her parents were living, but fate had other plans for her.

“My honour’s degree wasn’t recognised overseas, but it worked out for the best – I was accepted to do my PhD at the University of Canberra. And while I was overseas, my parents were secretly rejecting marriage proposals for me – they believe it is up to destiny for you to find the right person,” Dua says.

She met her now-husband at the University of Canberra in 2018. Born and raised in Jordan, her country of birth, he came to Australia to complete his own PhD.

For Dua, it all just proves that we write our own story.

“I believe we should let go of the story people think we should follow, and just be genuine to the story we want to create for our lives.”

Dua is just about to submit her PhD thesis, which looks at using artificial intelligence (AI) to detect symptoms of depression in a person. The AI analyses video of someone’s facial expressions and body movements – such as eye contact and how often they blink. She trained approximately 1,500 models over the course of writing her thesis, in order to explore the true potential of AI.

“The model analyses changes in a person’s mouth, eyes, upper body and such throughout a live or recorded video. So, while someone may mask their feelings or responses in a screening questionnaire, the AI can look at indications of depression over the course of the recording,” she says.

“I’m hoping it’s a really natural process that can recognise indicators of symptoms so people can take the next step to diagnose it.”

Dua’s AI technique only analyses visual data, while similar studies use a combination of audio and visual. She found that while someone’s voice offers strong indications linked to depression, her model is still capable of identifying these indications through movements of the mouth. The energy you have in speaking can be observed in mouth movements.

She hopes the technique can be developed for a clinical setting to aid General Practitioners (GPs) and mental health professionals when screening patients for depression. Just like other patient records, the videos would be kept securely by the medical clinic to protect patient privacy.

Coming from undergraduate and honours studies in electronics and communication engineering, doing a PhD in AI and mental health was a big leap for Dua.

While both her sisters and brothers are strong coders, Dua didn’t have the same aptitude. So, when she had to learn programming from scratch for her model, and link it to the datasets for her research, she was extra proud of the outcome.

“I had my daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was really challenging because my parents were in Melbourne and the lockdowns meant they couldn’t come here to help me,” Dua says.

“There were a lot of blocks to returning to my PhD, and I thought it was too hard to study and raise my daughter at the same time because those early years are so precious.

“But I thought about all those years spent working so hard on my PhD, and I didn’t want them to go to waste. I had always wanted to work in academia, and I want to be a role model for my daughter.”

It was also support from both her husband and her supervisor that encouraged Dua to continue her PhD and trust the process.

“Roland [Goecke], my supervisor, is the most patient person I’ve ever met,” Dua says.

“Supervisors can come and go, but he was consistent – I don’t think I would have completed my PhD if it wasn’t for him. I think your supervisors and peers really help you believe in yourself.”

Dua returned to studying part-time two months after having her baby, then went back full-time when her daughter was eight months old and transitioned to childcare.

She is submitting her thesis this month and will then work full-time, as she supports her husband through his study.

“I’ve always wanted to work and he’s been my rock while I was completing my PhD – now it’s my turn to support him,” she says.

Dua will be participating in the panel discussion, ‘What I wish I knew before I finished my thesis’, at the inaugural HDR Bazaar on 17 and 18 November on campus. She believes that consistency and commitment to the process helps one complete their PhD thesis.

“Doing a little bit every day – even just two hours a day – makes a massive difference and you will finish your thesis. Trust the process,” Dua says.

“Waking up an hour before my daughter and husband, to have that time to myself, made a huge difference.”

The HDR Bazaar is a free two-day event hosted by UC’s Graduate Research Office on17 and 18 November 2022. Registrations close Friday 11 November – learn more and book your spot online at this page.

Words and photos by Kailey Tonini.

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