Pakistani Interns Ping SLAC

July 20, 2011 by Mike Ross

When Amber Madeeha Zeb and Sadia Rehman arrived at SLAC from Pakistan on April 20 to work on the PingER project, they knew they would be beginning quite an adventure. To their delight, it has been entirely positive, both technically and personally.

Both women are studying for their masters degrees in communications systems at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in Islamabad, part of Pakistan’s National University of Science & Technology. They’re the first women to come to SLAC as part of a seven-year joint project funded by the Pakistani government that is aimed at improving their country’s Internet connections. A key feature of the project is sending two graduate students annually to SLAC to work with PingER director Les Cottrell.

The PingER project sends short electronic messages to 760 Internet nodes around the world and measures the time it takes to receive the automatic reply. Unusual delays or inconsistent “round-trip times” can indicate problems in the network.

When the head of SEECS, Arshad Ali, nominated Rehman and Zeb to come to SLAC, both were quite surprised.

“Are you kidding me?” Zeb said she thought at the time. After discussing it with their families, they agreed to make the journey. “Coming over here would make us better people, both technically and personally,” Zeb said.

So far, they say their experiences have exceeded their expectations.

“It’s been great,” exclaimed Zeb. “We worried that outside of work Americans would be very apprehensive of us. But the opposite has been true. Everyone shows so much love to us.”

“Riding my bike home to our Menlo Park apartment one evening I got tired and stopped to rest for a few minutes,” Zeb said. “A lady stopped her car, got out and asked me if I was OK and needed any assistance. The people here are amazing.”

Rehman’s biggest surprise so far is realizing the joy of smiling. “In Pakistan, young women do not smile at others,” she said. “It sends the wrong message. But here I’m learning to like smiling. It’s so wonderful to send a sign of positive energy to the people around you.”

Food has not been a problem either. “We can get all our spices at Safeway,” Zeb said with delight. A local Pakistani family gets them halal meat prepared according to Islamic dietary laws, which are very similar to Jewish kosher procedures. On some days they cook traditional biryani and chicken curry at home; other evenings they enjoying eating other cuisines at restaurants.

Zeb also enjoys playing many sports, from cricket and soccer to badminton and swimming. She’s hoping to find a swimming pool she can use. Sociable and outgoing, both women are also open to learning about and discussing current events as well as the differences between Pakistani and American cultures.

Technically, their work has already proven productive.

“At home we are typically collecting data and filing reports on network speeds,” Zeb said. “We didn’t know how the data was collected or how to use it to discover problems. That’s what Doctor Les is teaching us how to do here at SLAC.”

In past years, the Pakistani students have discovered that while their country’s backbone network was adequate, data communications were hampered by low-capacity links to the universities themselves. Now that those “last mile” links have been upgraded, Zeb’s analysis recently determined that intermittent power outages are the biggest problems.

“Sometimes it’s an area-wide power outage or rolling blackout,” she said. “Other times someone simply forgot to turn on the computer hosting the network node!” Cottrell says the simplest solution would be installing uninterruptible power supplies to the nodes. Some 40 Pakistani universities currently host Internet nodes; 20 more will soon join them.

Both students come from educated, high-tech families. Rehman’s father is a pediatric doctor. She became interested in information technology and systems from an older brother who works for an anti-virus company in Australia. “I’m the first female engineer in my entire extended family,” she said. “All my other female cousins are doctors; only the men are engineers. I think the mindset of Pakistanis is changing toward encouraging girls to opt for whichever profession they want to pursue, as long as it contributes toward the development of our country.”

Zeb’s father is an aeronautical engineer with the Pakistani Air Force. Her mother is teaches Urdu literature at a local university. Her elder brother is pursuing his masters degree in the field of automation and robotics in Germany .

“My mother wanted me to be a doctor, but we didn’t learn about some required paperwork until it was too late,“ Zeb said. “My next option was engineering, and I started with very little interest. My dad recommended electrical engineering as an upcoming field, and I loved it.

“Now I believe it was for the best,” Zeb said, smiling broadly.

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