Hedi Ben Daoud- a Tunisian child researcher's view on innovation
Hedi is a junior at the pioneer high school of Bourguiba in Tunisia. He is a member of the Tunisian national team for computing, and is a two time Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) alumni. In addition to this, he is a speaker and a former member of different high school and science clubs. He adores combining his competitive programming skills with mathematical thinking to come up with impactful projects and end-to-end solutions.
I met him around a month ago at the Wolfram High School Summer Camp, July 2019.
Me: Q.1. Can you tell us a bit more about your project “revolutionary refractometer”?
Hedi: The revolutionary refractometer originated from an actual market need in our social environment. Measuring the sugar concentration of liquids we drink everyday is, indeed, an important but time-consuming task. Thus, we had an idea, back then, of automating this process through a simple and end-to-end machine. The simple intuition behind the scientific methodology that we used, consisted in combining laser technology with Descartes laws of refraction and an Arduino board. The project was our first step in scientific research. In fact, thanks to basic manipulations, we were able to build, test and deploy a device.
Me: Q.2. Is research as a high schooler popular in Tunisia? How supportive are university professors in taking in high school interns?
Hedi: Scientific research within Tunisian high schools is not, unfortunately, a popular culture for many reasons. From the perspective of a rising Tunisian junior, our teachers are always supportive of any extra-curricular involvement in scientific activities. Nevertheless, their contributions are very poor. Besides, there is a huge gap between high schools and university researchers. There was many individual initiatives to bridge that gap, but no one can deny its existence. From a more general perspective, when you conduct research in Tunisia you earn the respect of people. But when you seek an actual help from academia to tackle a certain problem, a complex of superiority emerges from university professors. The main problem with Tunisian researchers is their compulsive urge to think that they are more professionally competent at a national level. Consequently, helping a kid with his work is none of their business. To conclude on a positive note, I think that during the next 10 years this infrastructure will certainly change due to a crucial connection between Tunisian researchers and the inter- national community.
Me: Q.3. You have always worked without a research mentor. Yet all of your projects are so polished and intricate. Would you say that you have faced some challenges specifically due to not having a mentor?
Hedi: At the very beginning of every project every researcher needs a direction to know exactly the question he will be trying to solve. Thus, a mentor’s main objective is to visualise his men tee’s perspectives and help find that direction. I would, definitely, lie if I would say that I didn’t need a teacher to help me with these crucial points during the development of my projects. The thing is, I really enjoy doing everything by myself. Besides, I believe that having access to a set of useful resources reduce the need for an academic guider. Fortunately, most of my questions were answered during my work. A deep understanding of the background field and a problem-solving mindset were able to achieve this point. Would it take less time and effort to accomplish this with a mentor? The answer is definitely a yes. If I had the chance to restart my research journey I would surely pick a technical advisor.
Me: Q.4. Your ISEF qualifying project, Revolutionary Refractometer, was as a team. How hard is it to be working in a team? Would you suggest someone just getting into research to do it as a team?
Hedi: One of the main takeaways of my science fair projects is that science is a marathon. No one could achieve an honourable contribution to this competition by just sitting at his desk and working hard. As a matter of fact when minds connect it is for sure a more efficient tool to tackle any kind of problem. Team projects are, as a result, more enjoyable and fruitful than individual ones. Back in 2017, we were able me and my teammate Omar to develop a high understanding and deep commitment to our professional and social relationship. Science did not only boost our critical thinking skills but also our ability to bond and explain our methodologies in an intuitive simplistic and elegant way.
Me: Q.5. Can you tell us a bit more about your ISEF experience? Was it different for the two times you went there?
Hedi: ISEF was a life changing experience that revolutionised my vision towards many things especially at the personal and academic level. No one can deny the huge amount of work, dedication, perseverance and even luck one’s need to compete in such a prestigious science fair. But once you are there you feel like you are finally part of something. You find out that your work was worth it. And despite the honourable awards, being a finalist is in itself an honour. The activities, talks and conversations you have at ISEF will develop your ability to solve problems and nurture your passion to start other projects. I could summarise my experience in one sentence: it is a connection to like-minded youngsters with a common aim of making the world a better place. The activities during my 2 ISEFs were similar. The funny difference that you could spot is the quality of projects that incredibly increases through time. Besides, from year to year people are different which makes the experience not only enjoyable but also eye-opening.
Me: Q.6. How do you come up with such great ideas and an effective research plan? Do you keep track of all the ideas you have and then look into which ones are approachable? Or do you spontaneously start working on one of them?
Hedi: Before starting any project, I first choose a respective field than try brain-storming a list of ideas during the first 2 weeks or so. After choosing the branch I would like to focus on, I proceed to the learning zone where I try mastering first basic, then more complex concepts that could be useful in tackling the problem. Then I review my list of ideas and based on the feasibility, innovation and beauty of a solution, I start building the prototype, measuring the accuracy and fine-tuning the results. Many points will change from a project to another but this is basically my general plan.
Me : Q.7. Your last year’s project was on predicting terrorism attracts. Can you tell a bit more about your project? Also, it is a huge problem, how could you come up with a possible solution without being overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible approaches?
Hedi: Terrorism is one of the most concerning issues not only in Tunisia but over the globe. 2 terroristic attacks back in 2016 were able to paralyse our economic growth and cause horrible casualties. No one can deny these horrible facts. But through constant observation and research, I was able to conclude our lack of a technological solution to this problem: A platform that connects users, military forces and emergency units with the main aim of minimising the damage of these attacks and improving the time-response to them. An artificial intelligence engine was developed to maintain a three part cycle : prediction using social media, detection using weapon sounds and a notification system. I believe that I took many risks when I first decided to tackle this kind of problem. But I always had the idea and I always wanted to move to the execution. After 6 months of constant hard-work, tests and improvements I was able to develop a rather elegant but sophisticated prototype. My involvement in this adventure thought me priceless lessons with the takeaway of science being a strong tool to boost one’s ability to act in his respective community. As you mentioned in your question, the problem is kind of open-ended. But when you define the exact constraints to solve it and the vision with which you want to develop your end-to-end solution you will be surprised by the results. I think that my contribution to this problem was relevant and I hope that other problem-solvers will make a good use of it.
Me : Q.8. What was your first inspiration to get into research? Did you always know that you wanted to do something related to computer science?
Hedi: Since my early age, I have always been fascinated by scientists and their astounding abilities to make tremendous impacts in their communities. That’s how I started at the age of 8: reading magazines, watching Science shows and browsing the net to nurture my passion for physics, biology, robotics and math. These initial sparks have helped me to improve my talents throughout my child- hood. Since then, science has significantly contributed in shaping my personality. My involvement in scientific endeavours has taught me priceless values like decision-making, perseverance and entrepreneurship. I always wanted to be around computer science for several reasons. Using CS you could conduct any kind of research in any field and have decent results. The requirements to master CS are neither expensive materials nor an ability to socialise and connect but only curiosity and self-learning. And finally you could build anything you want using the latest breakthroughs in fields ranging from medical engineering to computer vision thanks to a strong community of developers and an open- source widely spread culture.
Me: Q.9. An assumption that I often observe around me, is that one needs to be good at school academics to be a successful researcher. What do you think of that?
Hedi: I fully agree with your point of view. From personal experience, I have a good academic profile which encouraged me to pursue STEM. As a matter of fact, there is a vital intersection between science and academics. The ability to transform your low-level ideas to final sophisticated solutions is one of them. Values like perseverance, empathy, flexibility, curiosity could be easily retrieved from both good academics and successful researchers. Sometimes, unless you have a strong academic background you can’t conduct good research especially when it comes to scientific writing and finalising your methodologies.