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Women in the Digital Industry: The Long Road of Drishti Maharjan
January 5, 2022
It was a very emotional moment for her. After all, it was not only geographically a long way from Nepal to the stage in Dresden Drishti Maharjan stood on. In her school, she had often been the only girl to attend inclination courses in natural sciences. And now she accepted the prize for the 3rd place in the Zeiss Women Award 2021. A competition that honors outstanding female students in subjects such as computer science or computer engineering.
She even gave an acceptance speech. "It was important for me to talk about my background. I wanted to make it clear that other young women could be standing in my place if they had been given the same opportunities and chances that I have been given," the 22-year-old said. Drishti grew up in Lalitpur, a town of 225,000 near Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Her father died when she was 13, and her mother has a basic school diploma. The family is not one of the wealthy ones in the country. Scholarships enabled her to attend a private school in Nepal and to study at Jacobs University. "Without the financial help of the university, I would not have been able to study in Bremen."
She also received guidance during her time at the university, for example from Peter Zaspel, Professor of Computer Science. He supported her in writing her bachelor's thesis, which was honored with the Zeiss Women Award. Previously, at Zaspel's suggestion, she had already been awarded the Deans Prize, with which Jacobs University recognizes outstanding theses by its students.
"Drishti's work has a level that is often not even reached in master's theses," Zaspel said. "It opens the door to a new field for upcoming work on data-driven methods in scientific visualization." At issue is a software program called ParaView that visualizes fluids such as blood or water. Drishti introduced novel features in ParaView by incorporating machine learning into the software.
That she would one day become an excellent software developer was not foreseeable when she was at school. "I always enjoyed mathematics and scientific subjects, but not exclusively." She has varied interests. Therefore, a special feature of the choice of subjects at Jacobs University suited her. To try things out, students can take three disciplines in their first year. Only in their second year they have to decide on their final major. Drishti chose Business Administration, Global Economics and Computer Science. "I quickly realized that I wanted to do Computer Science."
What's so exciting about the field? "Being able to create something innovative with the help of a laptop and a few codes is really fascinating," she said. At Jacobs University, she also discovered her enthusiasm for hackathons. These are competitions in which participants have to find a creative, technical solution to a specific problem within a limited time. "Amazing innovations often come out of those," Drishti said. She was so taken with it that in 2019 she and some fellow students from Nepal set up their country's first international hackathon, Everest Hack. The event was a huge success. Now, the hackathon culture is growing in Nepal as well.
Most of the participants even in the hackathons she attended were men, of course. "As a child, I was often told that certain subjects were only for boys," Drishti recalled. For girls, she said, there was a lack of support; there were also no female teachers in the relevant subjects, no female role models. "In some classes at school, I was sometimes the only girl among 40 boys. That felt weird."
That changed at Jacobs University, at least a little. "I was super happy when I suddenly discovered fellow female students in my classes." However, her friends were quick to point out to her that men dominate math, science and technical subjects in Germany, too. "There just needs to be more support for women, not just in Nepal, but here too."
Three and a half years ago, in the summer of 2018, Drishti came to Bremen. She was 18 years old, and it was her first trip outside her country. "I was really nervous and didn't know what to expect." The language, the culture, the food, the weather – everything was new. "I didn't even know how the mail worked; I had never received a letter before."
One of the first things she stumbled upon was the German concept of punctuality. "The display board for the train said 'Arrival, 4:04 p.m.'. Strange time, I thought. Why don't they write 4:00 p.m.? To my amazement, the train arrived right on the minute," she recalled with a laugh. She settled in quickly, also thanks to Jacobs University's support for students. For example, there are "resident mentors" in every student accommodation on campus as reference persons for the students. "This system is extremely helpful."
She graduated in May 2021 and has since worked as a software developer for Polypoly, a startup that aims to give users back sovereignty over their data. Currently, Drishti is in Nepal, for the first time since she began her studies. She will be coming back to Germany, that much is certain. First, she wants to gain more work experience and then do her master's degree. Her journey from Nepal to Bremen has been a long one, but it has been worth it.
This text is part of the series “Faces of Jacobs,” in which Jacobs University introduces students, alumni, professors, and staff. Further episodes can be found at www.jacobs-university.de/faces.