In the first of a two-part series we talk to the inspiring scientific communicator and lauded engineer Hajar Mousannif about her journey of discovery and success.
Rabat – Professor Hajar Mousannif is one of the rising stars of Morocco’s scientific community. She is an enthusiastic and engaging scientific communicator as well as a renowned engineer and scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence.
Professor Mousannif comes from modest means and had to overcome significant obstacles on her path to success. She spoke to Morocco World News to explain how she got to where she is now, and how others can benefit from the lessons she has learned along the way, as part of a two-part series.
Mousannif’s journey led her to earn an engineering degree in telecommunications at the National Institute of Posts and Telecommunications in Rabat, followed by a PhD in computer science at Cadi Ayyad University. Since then she has joined the faculty as a researcher and professor. She now teaches, researches, and supervises PhD students.
As an up-and-coming telecom engineer, Hajar Mousannif founded the university’s first master’s program in data science and artificial intelligence, operates several research programs with the Moroccan government, and holds two patents in AI.
Now emerging as one of the country’s most recognizable scientists in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Hajar Mousannif has pursued her ambitions along a challenging but exciting path.
‘A curious little girl’
It all started with humble beginnings.
Hajar Moussanif smiled as she recalled her youth. “I was always a curious little girl,” she grinned as she recalled how she would always take apart her toys and then reassemble them. “I was fascinated by technology at a very young age,” she told MWN, “I liked discovering things. I liked doing challenging things. I wasn’t the type of girl to play with dolls.”
“Since I was a child, I was curious about everything around me, always asking tons of questions,” she explained as she highlighted how her parents ended up having to answer all her inquiries, a tough task before Google existed. “I gave my parents a hard time answering all my questions, but they were very patient,” she reminisced.
Her curiosity did not go unnoticed despite being the third of seven children. “They were always telling me that my questions were always unexpected and bigger than me,” Mousannif said. Her parents’ support had a lasting effect, not just on her but on all her siblings who each discovered their own path and passion.
The Mousannif family came from modest means, her father having worked as a carpenter all his life. Yet now, the family counts a renowned scientist as well as a pharmaceutical laboratist, a dentist, and an entrepreneur. ”We have all taken different paths,” she explained.
Throughout Mousannif’s education she encountered several opportunities to go abroad, yet she preferred to stay in Morocco.
She deliberately chose to study exclusively at the country’s public schools and universities. “I’m 100% Moroccan-made and always proud to say that,” she told MWN, adding that “I’m a fighter, I love working in challenging environments.”
Mousannif decided to stay in Morocco “because I like to do something for my country.” From Morocco she has built a global reputation while contributing to her homeland.
“I’m open to collaborations, I work with international universities, I participate in many international avenues and events but I still stick to my origins,” she stated proudly. “If I want to change something I have to start with my country and contribute to its development.”
All around her, Mousannif sees fellow Moroccans making the same decision to study at Moroccan public schools as a way to realize their dreams. “Every year we have graduates who are taking the lead, starting successful companies, working abroad or working for big international firms.”
Mousannif recognizes her own role in promoting Morocco-minded educational aspirations. “I’m doing my best to promote the AI culture, make people more interested and make AI more inclusive, especially for a country that is developing,” she explained.
“I think there is a start to everything. We should plant the first seeds and watch it grow.”
Doubters and support
Hajar Moussanif’s father was a self-educated carpenter but her parents and grandmother always pushed her and her siblings to “learn and to make something of our lives.”
“It was out of the question to just sit and do nothing,” she recalled.
The road to her current success was paved with obstacles and negative attitudes. “In life we always face challenges. I myself failed two consecutive years after getting my bachelor’s degree,” she said.
Her mathematics professor bluntly told her to “just get married and have children” after she failed her first year. Yet, even though she again failed the next year, she was convinced of her chosen path. “I had my dreams and I knew I would do something great,” she explained.
Hajar Mousannif ignored her doubtful professor. “I didn’t listen to him and got my engineering degree, PhD degree, I started to work in AI and achieved so many things,” she stated with a smile.
“It’s a shame I haven’t met him ever since, so I could tell him ‘thank you for saying something like that, because I did achieve what I wanted.’”
Her professor’s comments did nothing but drive her forward.
“People tend to give up after failing two years in a row, but I was resilient. I had dreams that I believed in and I knew that I would do something good.”
Her persistence stemmed from her personal drive and the group of people around her who inspired success. “I like to surround myself with people who push me forward, people who are positive.”
Years after overcoming others’ doubts and many challenges, she is now a renowned professor who supports young students pursuing their master’s and PhD studies.
As a professor at a public university, Hajar Mousannif deals with people with different mentalities, different origins, and different world views on a daily basis.
Her position gives her great insight into the issues that affect young people’s education. She explained that “some people have financial issues. Girls are often required to do work at home and help the family, or help make ends meet.”
Hajar Mousannif applies the same pressure on her students that helped her thrive throughout her career. “I like to push them forward. I explain how I am from a very modest family myself but that the key is your mentality.”
Self-belief and the right mentality is key to Mousannif, who told MWN that “people need such motivation, people to tell them to believe in themselves and create their own success even if they come from a modest family.”
Coming from such a family herself she is very aware of the struggle and effort success requires.
Simply going to school would be difficult, but she would walk there every day. “Now I have my house and everything I want and the sky is no longer the limit.”
She tells her students that “all human limits are self-imposed.” She tells anyone to “focus on how to solve problems and not give up at the early steps.”
Barriers for female students
Over the years she has witnessed numbers of female students steadily increase. In the STEM field she sees a 50-50 division between male and female master’s students, but at the PhD level it is a different story.
Hajar Mousannif has supervised many PhD students since 2013, but only one female PhD candidate has made it.
“I keep pushing them, coaching them, and encouraging them. This works with males but not with female students because they tend to get married or start to work after getting their master.”
“When it comes to PhDs, they seem to lose interest,” she lamented.
Mousannif does not feel the government is blocking access to this level of higher education for aspiring female scientists. Instead she considers that ‘it happens in the female mind, it is a form of self-limitation.”
“At the end of their master’s education they are 24 or 25 and they start thinking about building a family.” She understands that such ambitions are hard to align with the difficult challenge of obtaining a doctorate degree.
Still, to this day Hajar Mousannif receives messages from girls and women from all around the world who were hesitant to enter STEM fields yet decided to take the plunge after seeing her work.
Sometimes it feels as if she is far removed from the struggles of her early years in education but then these messages remind her of her journey. In order to help others, she actively promotes her field of AI and encourages curious minds to discover a future working in science.
Hajar Moussanif sees the use of English as a key advantage in today’s world. In order to benefit from the knowledge and communities available online, she promotes the use of English among her students, doing so “as best I can, because I think it is the future.”
“Even in the university my classes are in English, not French,” she stated, highlighting that “for researchers I advise to use English, you will find a community and the answers you seek.”
Mousannif sees many opportunities for young Moroccans to benefit from the increasing promise of Artificial Intelligence.
There are a plethora of options available for students interested in AI. She advises they study mathematics, computer science, programming, data engineering, and working with databases. “Those are the prerequisites if you want to really dive in and develop algorithms and learn it from scratch,” she explained to MWN.
The use of AI is not limited to the STEM field. Mousannif encourages a much more broad application of AI technology: “There are many alternatives, AI can also just be used as a tool.”
Hajar Mousannif has one central piece of advice for anyone interested in science or education as a whole: “Most importantly there is something you need to develop inside of you; the problem solving ability.”
She sees the ability to view obstacles as problems that need well-developed solutions as a way to overcome life’s challenges. “This was very useful to me, whenever I faced an obstacle I saw it as a problem to be solved.”
“Whatever your problems are, you need to be able to contribute with whatever you have, if you pick up this problem solving ability, nothing will stand in your way,” she advised.
The renowned professor sees this as part of building resilience. She always advises others to “surround yourself with people that will push you forward instead of holding you back with negativity.”
“I have heard a lot of negativity and I didn’t care.” Despite this negativity,, she has built robots from broken dolls, asking carpenters for pieces of wood while her colleagues joked about her idea. “It was a crazy idea, everyone was making jokes about it,” she said.
But Hajar Mousannif had faced doubters before.
“I didn’t listen and now this robot has secured one million dirhams from a big firm in the US,” she said smiling, adding, “I told my doubters ‘you were laughing at me, but I will achieve even more.’”