ADP Women in STEM Profile: Kulsoom Abdullah

Women in Stem

Part 4 in the ADP Women in STEM series

How does a data scientist change the world? Ask a really great question, then make case for a new answer.

Kulsoom Abdullah's family is from Pakistan, but she was born in Kansas and then moved to Florida when she was five. Growing up in small towns, Kulsoom learned to stand out early wearing hijab.

Islam's code of modesty extends to all aspects of one's life, including attire. Hijab, the head-covering worn by Muslim women, is an outer manifestation of an inner commitment to worship God. Hijab is not just a head covering and is not forced. While many people may think that hijab is worn primarily to restrain men's illicit desires, this is another misconception. In the Muslim faith, it is not a women's duty to regulate the behavior of men. Men are accountable for their own conduct, and are equally required to be modest and to handle themselves responsibly in every sphere of their lives.

Although there were few Muslim families where she grew up, Kulsoom explained that in small towns, people get to know each other and form deeper ties. She faced more curiosity and lack of knowledge than bias. While educating people on the aspects of her daily life and religion can be tiring, Kulsoom has always tried to be patient because she has tremendous curiosity herself.

In school, Kulsoom was immediately drawn to science and math. She wanted to understand how things worked and how to solve problems. In college, she chose engineering, not realizing that once again she would stand out, this time as a woman. There were very few women engineering majors, and even the buildings reflected that. For example, in the physics department, there was originally only one bathroom on each floor, for men. Eventually, they added women's bathrooms, but only on every other floor. Yet, Kulsoom found her classmates generally encouraging and had an advisor who believed in her based on her intelligence, talent, and hard work.

In college, Kulsoom also discovered the excitement of working with computers. She was fascinated by both software and hardware, how networks and systems worked, how information could be processed and connected for new insights, and where computer systems could be vulnerable to attacks. As she learned more, she realized that data science was an important piece. "You can't address security without understanding both the technology and people."

Kulsoom went on to earn a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Technical Institute, writing her thesis on "Scaling and Visualizing Network Data to Facilitate in Intrusion Detection Tasks."

While at Georgia Tech, Kulsoom learned about ADP's data incubation program at a meet-up and wanted to learn more. She was intrigued by ADP's wealth of data on people and what could be learned. People are unpredictable and what they are willing to tell researchers (or surveys or HR) is often not the whole story. Kulsoom began to imagine what she could learn from information about what people do rather than what they think or say about what they do. When she heard about a data scientist opening with ADP, she applied and got the job.

Along with her team, Kulsoom is exploring how to understand employee retention and turnover to figure out what factors indicate that someone is going to leave their job. She is also part of the team that is aggregating, cleaning, and anonymizing ADP's data so it can be used more broadly as part of the ADP Open Data Project and ADP Ventures. She is constantly asking, "How do we use data to have deeper and new insights?" Every day there are new discoveries, obstacles, and questions.

Kulsoom is also a powerful athlete. In grad school, she practiced Tai Kwan Do, earning her black belt. But when she finished her PhD, she explored other forms of training. She became interested in Olympic weight lifting because technique and speed were more important than raw strength. When she investigated where she could learn this style of weight lifting, she found a cross-fit gym where Olympic weight lifters trained. She trained with weights and eventually worked up the courage to enter local competitions.

In December 2010, Kulsoom qualified for the American Open Weightlifting Championship. But, there was a problem. At the national level, athletes were required to wear a singlet, a unitard that exposed the weightlifter's arms and legs. Kulsoom wrote the sponsoring organization asking for accommodation based on her religion. The organization, citing US Olympic Committee rules, rejected Kulsoom's request because of concerns about fairness of the competition if the judges could not observe whether the weightlifter's elbows and knees were locked during the lift. (The head-scarf was not the issue and was already allowed so long as it did not touch the barbell or interfere with the lift.)

Kulsoom did not see how she could compete; she was not going to discard her religion and its tenets for weightlifting. But her friends in and out of the gym encouraged her to appeal. And they had friends such as lawyers, civil rights advocates, and journalists who all wanted to help her to challenge the decision.

Kulsoom began by persuading the US Olympic Committee to rethink the rule and to suggest a change to the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF).

Women in Stem

Kulsoom thought that more than a suggestion was needed. She put together a 40-page presentation for the appeal. And the US Olympic Committee joined her petition to the IWF to change the rule for all international competitions.

While Kulsoom was preparing her presentation, her friends were letting the world know about the 116 pound female weightlifter in hijab who qualified for nationals and had earned the opportunity to compete, but could not until the rules were changed.

In her presentation, Kulsoom explained how she could wear form fitting clothing on her arms and legs so that the judges could observe her technique. She demonstrated how she could comply with the rules on lifting and how the competition would be fair to all participants. Then, for good measure, Kulsoom made the business case for opening the sport to participants who had been excluded based on clothing, not athletic ability.

It was a compelling case. The media attention also helped.

Kulsoom won her appeal and the IWF agreed to change the rule. Now, Olympic weightlifting is open for all athletes regardless of whether they cover their elbows and knees.

Kulsoom went on to compete in international competitions and was the first female weightlifter to represent Pakistan in the World Weightlifting Championships in 2011 and 2012. To learn more about Kulsoom's Olympic weightlifting training, competitions, and story, see her blog, Liftingcovered, where she talks about the challenges of training and competing as a woman and Muslim.

Her advice: "Don't' worry about what other people think. Be yourself and do what you are inspired to do. Don't let things outside of you dictate what you do or think or look like."