Introducing the first tenure-track computing professor in 10 years

Farhana Zulkernine to focus on Big Data in the School of Computing

Farhana Zulkernine is the newest tenure-track professor in the School of Computing.
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As the first tenure-track professor hired into the School of Computing this decade, Farhana Zulkernine’s appointment has been a long time coming.

“I know what the students are going through,” she said, referring to the ten-year hiring hiatus in the School of Computing. “I knew the program was lacking.”

Zulkernine isn’t wrong. One faculty member was hired in 2006, with a half-time professor in 2014, but otherwise hiring halted from 1995 until this year.

Faculty retirements began to affect the school in 2007. Seven out of 28 faculty members departed Queen’s from 2007 to 2015, with another seven expected by this year. None had been replaced, while the student-to-faculty ratio rose from 11:1 to 19.5:1 from 2011 to 2014.

Zulkernine’s hire, which focuses on Big Data, Machine Learning and Cognitive Science, is a victory for the faculty. Her career in computing dates back to high school, after which she pursued a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Computer Engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

She first came to Queen’s to complete her PhD in 2004. “It’s basically my home,” she said.

Zulkernine spent several years after her degree working in the industry. She took a job with the National Tax Board in Bangladesh after graduation, and later with UNICEF, IBM and CA Technologies. Her experience in the industry, she feels, provides an asset to her students.

“I accumulated my experiences from not only my education,” she said. “This is all a form of education to me.” Focusing on students’ needs is a priority for her in the new role.

The program was outdated, she explained. She’s made early revisions to incorporate linguistics, philosophy, computing, psychology, artificial intelligence and neuroscience as equally important components of the first-year introductory course in cognitive science she’ll be teaching.  

“I like to hear from the students about their feedback and compare that to what other universities offer,” she added. “Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary field and having a balance is important.”

For the last few years, Zulkernine has served as an adjunct assistant professor at Queen’s, teaching all four cognitive science course offerings in the School of Computing.

Beyond first-year studies, Zulkernine recognizes a need for increased student preparation for a world where computing is present in all aspects of work and daily life. Incorporating guest lecturers in different disciplines is one step that could assist students.

“I want the program to be more accessible too. There are School of Business students who are taking my cognitive science courses and interested in how the modeling system works and can be incorporated into business decisions,” Zulkernine said.

The hiring process for Zulkernine’s role was unique in its incorporation of student feedback. A luncheon was held with prospective faculty on a short-list, where current Queen’s computing students were given the opportunity to interact and provide feedback.

Computing Students’ Association President Aniqah Mair, CompSci ’18, collected anonymous student feedback to base her advocacy for certain candidates on hard data.

“I understand that many computing students have complex feelings towards this appointment,” she said of Zulkernine’s selection. “And I share in some of those sentiments.”

She explained that some students had opposing viewpoints to University administration in terms of the hiring choice, but she also acknowledged that faculty had a “strong understanding” of what was best for the long-term success of the faculty.

“I am extremely proud to be part of an academic community that values student input enough to include us in hiring processes, even if our part to play can be relatively small,” Mair said.

“This speaks volumes about our university’s commitment to student representation.”

As for Zulkernine, she sees the greatest challenge for the School of Computing to be the lack of administrative support for more multidisciplinary programs such as cognitive science.

She also commented on the lack of innovative and research-based progress. “Research is a very important aspect of study, and the university is falling behind in that,” she said.

“Computer Science is such a fast-paced field and there are discoveries being made every day. Why is it then that there aren’t new professors and faculties emerging here?”

The key to strengthening the program and making it more accessible to students of all faculties is to increase interest and enthusiasm surrounding it, according to Zulkernine.

“[Computing] needs more energy, backup and faculty members. From the Queen’s community, I would really appreciate some more enthusiasm in the Computer Science field and the support to keep the program growing.”

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