Finding Confidence and Community through Broader Engagement

Finding Confidence and Community through Broader Engagement

In the 1990s, it seemed impossible that a young girl from a village in war-torn Sri Lanka could one day find herself in one of the United States’ prestigious national labs, but Zahmeeth Sakkaff learned to trust her intelligence and dream bigger.

Because of Sri Lanka’s Civil War (1983-2009), Zahmeeth was not able to have consistent schooling, and when she finished high school and wanted to continue her studies, her family had to move multiple times. She had to work to help support them. She also faced the additional challenges of being a woman and Muslim (who are a minority in Sri Lanka) in a country that was fairly conservative. However, at her work, she met someone who encouraged her to pursue her Bachelors through the Open University of Sri Lanka, which allowed her to take courses both by correspondence and in-person. In 2005, she completed her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Chemistry.

She went on to get a Masters of Philosophy in Computer Science-PGIS from the University of Peradeniya and had wanted to get an academic position as a lecturer. However, she found she did not have the right connections despite her qualifications and academic awards. With the help of a friend who was studying in Nebraska, Zahmeeth once again began to look beyond her immediate offerings, applied for and was accepted into a Ph.D. program in the United States.

While finishing her Ph.D. studies in Computer Engineering and a Master in Computer Science, Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Zahmeeth was interested in attending the 2019 Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (SIAM) and learned about Sustainable Horizon Institute’s (SHI) Broader Engagement (BE) program.

“Through BE, I learned that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your discipline is. It was such a welcoming group,” says Zahmeeth. “Before participating in the BE program, I didn’t know how to present a poster. BE gave me the confidence to do this, and that poster opened my career path.”

Zahmeeth went on to win a best poster award for her work, “Molecular Communication in Cell Metabolism Communication & Information-Centric Computational Tool in KBase.” She was able to parlay an internship with Argonne National Laboratory into her current Postdoctoral Appointment with the Computational Biology, Data Science and Learning Division at Argonne. She is now in training to become a research developer/principal investigator and hopes to continue working in national labs. Throughout her post-SIAM 2019 journey, she has stayed in touch with the other students and mentors she met through the BE program.
“I am a minority of a minority, and BE helped give me a platform,” says Zahmeeth. “I hope to give back and help other students see that they don’t need to squeeze themselves into specific molds and that they are not isolated. The BE community is here. They are like family.”