“I still go to meetings where I am the only woman, and I’ve never probably gone in a meeting where it’s fifty-fifty ever, [laughter] yes, unless it’s, like, a woman-intrinsic network meeting.” Says Madiha Jafri, a leader in the field of cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence. Her remarkable journey begins in Saudi Arabia. The youngest of the five Jafri children Madiha is a trailblazer and someone who continues to inspire youth and peers to achieve their dreams just like she did.
In 1947, Madiha’s father Jamil Jafri’s family moved from Bhopal, India to Karachi in Pakistan. Jamil married Ghazala whose family was from Gujrat, Pakistan through the “arranged marriage” tradition. In 1979 they moved to Saudi Arabia where Madiha was born on August 15, 1982. Saudi Arabia also known as the “US of the Middle East” is remembered by Madiha as a safe place in comparison to Pakistan. A place that offered many luxuries and necessities like electricity which her cousins did not have in Pakistan.
Madiha studied in the Pakistani International School where the curriculum was taught in Urdu by teachers from Pakistan. Her childhood world revolved around her home and school, and the way of life she was accustomed to while growing up in Saudi Arabia. While there were many restrictions for immigrants Madiha did not really think about the religious laws, limitations of women’s freedoms, or the segregationist policies that separated immigrants from the Saudis. Even though she was born in Saudi Arabia she was not granted citizenship and had to be on her mother’s passport. In later years, Madiha reflects upon the absence of the ‘sense of belonging” that people feel when immigrating from another country. Over the years, she feels that her connection with India, Pakistan along with Saudi Arabia are not tangible and she feels most connected with the USA.
In 1992 she had to move to Pakistan when it was time for her older siblings to go to college as international students were not allowed to go to college in Saudi Arabia. While :safety-wise it was really bad, but freedom wise, I think Pakistan was really better.” She was able to make a lot of friends in the neighborhood as they all spoke Urdu and unlike her sister who had to cover herself completely in Saudi Arabia, she did not have to wear a burkha.
While totally unexpected the sudden ‘Okay, lets pack up. We are moving to America” filled her with excitement and apprehension. She had studied English but was not fluent and remembers “on the airplane, studying, and studying, and going through English dictionary and learning the words.” As a 12-year-old she “didn’t realize the newfound freedom that I was going to go to.” Her visit was colored by the negative opinions expressed by relatives to her mother “Oh my gosh, you have four daughters…they’ll just go wild and become Americanized. Why do you have to go there?” She recalls her parents excuse which was not ‘We want to get our children educated” but it was more “ We want them to be safe.” This was true given that there was a lot of turmoil in Pakistan and young boys were being recruited, kidnapped, or hurt by fundamentalist groups.
The family stayed with Jawed Chacha (uncle) upon arrival in 1993. The new surroundings, school, and the unfamiliarity of moving to United States was overwhelming. However, the home in Hampton, Virginia surrounded by uncles, aunts, and cousins was comforting. Amber and Dad arrived a few months later and the family was united once again. In 1993 Madiha recalls taking a family trip to Niagara, a must-see for all immigrants, and so began a new chapter in our lives.
In 1995 Madiha moved to their family’s first home in Norfolk, Virginia. While Madiha’s father was an engineer the language barrier made it hard for him to get a job. He worked odd jobs to support his family. Her older siblings went to college and her brother worked part time to support the family. In 1997 Jamil began a property rental business and Madiha remembers helping her father and brother do home improvements.
As an 8th grader going to school in Norfolk was “terrifying” because she could not speak English fluently, did not know “if she were dressed right” or that “they would like her.” Subjects like math, algebra, and science were hard because they required one to be fluent in English. “I touched paints and crayons for the first time, and I loved art…Some of my paintings went to International competitions and won,” says Madiha but when she expressed her desire to be an artist her parents did not allow her to pursue it saying, “We did not come to this country so you can be an artist.” She eventually chose to pursue engineering just like her father and her older siblings. While in High School she and her sisters were not allowed to take part in extra-curricular activities. Madiha broke this barrier and joined the Cooperating Hampton Roads Organization for Minorities in Engineering Community (CHROME) Club in school and the Technology Students Association in High School. While she was not allowed to travel for competitions this involvement helped her expand her horizon to gain experience outside of the classroom.
Her sister Amber who had broken another barrier in her family by leaving home for pursuing her degree in Chemical Engineering at Virginia Tech. So, when Madiha got admission in Virginia Tech she decided to join her sister in Blacksburg. As Pakistani custom demanded the girls could not live by themselves, so the family split again. Ghazala stayed with the girls and Jamil remained in Norfolk. However, the weekly travel home to be with family proved to be very strenuous. Encouraged by one of her professors she applied for a NASA scholarship that included a fully funded BS/MS/PhD program at Old Dominion University (ODU). Wining the scholarship in 2001 was a great honor and the start of a brilliant career as an Engineer.
Many teachers and professors became influential role models and inspiration for Madiha. She fondly recollects how her English teacher Mr. Bostic helped her become more confident in her writing skills in English. Dr. Rasha Morsi, who according to Madiha “broke all kinds of rules” as an Egyptian-born “female Muslim” professor pursuing a career in teaching, and as a person who wore skirts which was “a complete taboo” in the Muslim culture. “I gravitated toward her” because her “boldness” was “inspiring”. Her Ph.D. advisor Dr. Linda Vahala, another female professor who told her, “I think there’s a lot of potential her. Why don’t you pursue a Master’s?” According to Madiha “These seeds sown in my head” inspired me to break barriers and pursue my dreams.
Immersed in pursuing academics the 9/11 terrorist attack was a jolt to all in her family. 2001 is remembered by Madiha as particularly “difficult on people who looked like Muslims” like her sister who covered her head at all time; “I think, for the rest of us, we tried hard to just kind of fit in as Hispanics or Indian” and in her case she remembers pulling my “Indian Dad card” out a lot too. It was a balancing act between living by the rules of her parents, conservative Muslim culture and traditions, and her growing academic interests.
Upon completing her bachelor’ sin 2003 her parents did not want her to pursue her master’s because they felt that many of the “arranged marriage” proposals were falling apart because people just didn’t want “such an educated wife or daughter-in-law.” Madiha married Hamid in 2004 who to her pleasant surprise wanted her to “get further education” and pursue her academic program.
In 2007, while continuing with her research in NASA she completed her PhD and her post-doctorate in bio-medical engineering at the Neuropsychiatry Research Center in Hartford. During her PhD dissertation she worked with NASA to leverage all the past data collected using traditional physics-based models like ray tracing and finite element method to model interference patterns using AI and companies like Boeing to measure interference levels on various aircrafts. In that sense, Madiha became one of the few engineers who were using AI to solve complex problems.
Her talent and ability to think out-of-the-box attitude earned her a prestigious job offer in 2007 from Lockheed Martin located in Moorestown. She was asked to solve a problem that would normally have been tackled by cryptographers. Surprised but ready to take on a challenge she worked on solving the issue of securing communication used to guide missiles launched using the Aegis Combat Systems on Navy ships. Madiha moved to Mount Laurel in 2007 and began pursuing her dream job in engineering in earnest.
Madiha soon found out that it was not necessary to change jobs to pursue new challenges because of the numerous opportunities available within Lockheed Martin. Everyday problems inspired her to think deeper. When one of her colleagues was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian cancer, she began to wonder how it could be detected earlier. In 2009 leading a team of experts in Nanotechnology she was able to develop sensors that could not only detect biological and chemical weapons but also ovarian cancer depending on the binding agent used.
Life at home was challenging but Mazen born in 2009 and Anya in 2011 filled her life with joy. Madiha now reflects upon the many difficulties she faced in her marriage and the pressures she faced from her family and the Pakistani Muslim community that considered even a “bad marriage” better than getting a divorce. One time when her manager wanted to promote her, she remembers telling him, “No, just don’t promote me because then, my salary, would be higher than my husband’s and that would cause issues.” The fear of being “disowned’ by family and of being “completely alone” is “scary” and it took much courage to separate in 2012. Madiha gives credit to many friends and co-workers who supported her including her youngest sister Reda for giving her the confidence to re-build her life. Through all this turmoil in her personal life her passion for her work led her to achieve many new successes.
In 2012 she joined the Advanced Technical Leadership team to work under different leaders and groups within the company. One of the activities involved mentoring students who participated in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Madiha joined the Storm Robotics team and this was a major turning point in her life. It gave her the opportunity to connect with a hobby outside of the traditional gender-based roles expected of her throughout her life. Most importantly she met loving couples and partners who were raising bold and independent children and inspiring her to re-imagine her future and re-charge her inner self. The team won several awards and became the 2013 Regional Winners at the Mid-Atlantic Region Competition.
In 2015, after the successful completion of this two-year training program, she was asked to build a cybersecurity team. The cybersecurity department that grew from 12 engineers to thirty-five engineers was focused on protecting assets in the Lockheed Martin facility and the Navy facility in the area. In 2017 when the Department of Defense was ready to use AI, she joined the Joint AI Center (JAIC) to evaluate how AI could enhance products. She was getting back into AI and that is “what scared her the most, because my PhD was ten years old. So, I was very nervous.” The key to being a successful leader is to “connect with the perfect people who just know so much, so that I do have to pretend to be an expert.” The sign of a good leader is to be able to bring the best and brightest together. “I think I pick up enough where I know who to go for their expertise now. So, I do not know everything, but I do know what question to ask and I think that’s how I am surviving and being able to lead.”
Today Madiha is a proud mother, mentor, and a well-respected leader in her field and an inspiration to many, in 2013 Madiha received the Technology Rising Start Award by the Woman of Color magazine. She was granted her first US patent in 2019 for Three-Dimensional Microfluidic Multiplexed Diagnostic System. Since 2017 she has been leading a group of over 100 mentors and engineers across Lockheed Martin for the FIRST Robotics program. Her new family of friends who have supported her, have also taught her much about everything from racial justice, diversity and inclusion, LGBTQ issues, and more. Today she is invited to speak at AI Conferences, Women in STEM, LGBTQ Bar Conference, local schools, Junior Achievement of NJ, and other organizations.
“I’m extremely patriotic, given my life’s background and everything…The defense sector does not pay a lot…but I think that just the mission of being able to defend the nation keeps me with DoD. I don’t have muscle to serve in the Army or Navy, right, but at least I’m hoping to continue to help our soldiers and our war fighters, keep them safe to help keep us safe and our children safe. So, I think I’ll continue do that.” Madiha looks forward to continuing her work in AI with the DoD to keep ahead of adversaries and serve her country as best as she can through her expertise in engineering.