Shaya Zihajehzadeh of FORM: “Always maintain a healthy life-work balance”

Always maintain a healthy life-work balance. Don’t compromise life for work or the other way around. After years I realized that it’s possible to have a better balance by proper planning and having honest conversations about what matters to you. The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around […]

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Always maintain a healthy life-work balance. Don’t compromise life for work or the other way around. After years I realized that it’s possible to have a better balance by proper planning and having honest conversations about what matters to you.

The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Shaya Zihajehzadeh, Senior Data Scientist — FORM

Shaya Zihajehzadeh is a senior data scientist at FORM where she develops AI algorithms for the FORM Smart Swim Goggles, a pair of smart swimming goggles that feature an augmented reality display that shows real-time performance swim metrics to swimmers. She got her PhD degree in 2017 and has been working on AR products over the past 10 years. She is interested in the development of robust and computationally efficient sensor fusion and machine learning algorithms for wearable sensors primarily targeted at health, fitness, and active sports applications.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Iran. My father was a university professor in economics, and our house was always filled with books. I grew up loving to read and was very curious about how things worked. I went as far as breaking things apart, just to understand them and then put then repiece them back together. Back then, it never occurred to me I would end up in STEM.

I graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering in Iran before moving to Canada to pursue my PhD. When I first arrived, what struck me most was the immense nature and Canada’s multicultural society. Now I call beautiful Vancouver, BC, my home.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Working in a male-dominated profession, I’ve always benefited from building up my self-confidence to be my best self at work. I enjoy reading self-help books that better both my personal and professional life.

One book I’d recommend is “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown. This book is about improving your well-being and finding self-acceptance. It helps readers embrace their imperfections and accept themselves for who they are, rather than trying hard to live a fake life in a bid to impress others.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the AR industry? We’d love to hear it.

The very first AR product that I worked on was actually a very interesting one that inspired me to pursue my career in this industry.

I worked at sports technology company Recon in 2012, helping develop smart ski goggles with a heads-up display (HUD). Back in those days, I didn’t know how to ski, but that internship inspired me, and by the end of my term, I was hitting the slopes.

After finishing at Recon, I was inspired to stay in the sports tech industry. From smart ski goggles, I began developing algorithms for smart glasses with a HUD for cycling and running and then on to my current work, smart swimming goggles.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

I think the most exciting job in my career so far is the job I have! I’m a Senior Data Scientist at FORM, where I develop algorithms for FORM Smart Swim Goggles, the world’s first augmented reality (AR) swim goggles. These swim goggles allow swimmers to see their performance metrics like pace per 100, distance, calories and stroke rate in the see-through AR display in real-time.

My love for swimming has deep roots in my childhood. I was a toddler when I first began swimming lessons, and that love for swimming only grew when I started to swim competitively later on.

As a swimmer, this is my dream job.

Being at FORM lets me apply my skills as a data scientist and marry them to my sport and develop a product to help swimmers of every level.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve made many mistakes along the way and I try to learn from each one of them. It’s funny, when I look back, I thought I should know everything, but I was also shy about asking questions. I spent a lot of time figuring things out on my own that could have easily been solved by asking simple questions from the right person.

Over time I realized that I’m not supposed to know everything; I should ask questions even if they seem silly.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My PhD supervisor, Dr. Ed Park is one of the most influential people in my new life in Canada. It wasn’t easy to leave my friends and family behind to come to Canada. When I first arrived, Dr. Park was the only person I knew and his supervision in my degree helped me get to where I am today.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Urm…I have a different project at the moment! I recently had a baby, and he takes up most of my time!

When I do get some free time, I read about state-of-the-art data science techniques and their applications. When I do head back to work, I can’t wait to use these new techniques to develop new exciting features for the FORM goggles!

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

The VR, AR, and MR technologies have many applications, and I’m most excited about their applications in healthcare and education. The fact is that soon, these technologies will become an integral part of our everyday lives.

In healthcare, these technologies can be used for the early detection of diseases through longitudinal monitoring of patient’s data and detecting subtle changes. Monitoring micro-movements of our head, torso, hands and eyes can tell us about a person’s cognitive and physical function, and even detect diseases such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and autism. These technologies have already been adopted in therapy where they can be used to treat patients with anxiety disorders and phobias.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

I’m mainly concerned about the effect of these technologies on physical and mental health as well as the potential privacy issues.

For example, AR or VR headsets’ prolonged use could introduce users to new safety risks not typically associated with electronic devices. These risks may include neck issues and headaches and prolonged exposure to potentially harmful optical radiation.

Social isolation is also a concerning aspect of these technologies. The whole VR experience takes place within a single user’s field of vision and excludes others from physically participating with them.

Moreover, when using AR applications in the real world, we reveal vast amounts of information about ourselves. This information ranges from our behaviour and movement in virtual environments and facial expressions, speech data or even eye movement patterns which can be used to uniquely identify us.

As we develop these technologies, it’s crucial to ensure their impact on our lives and wellbeing is carefully considered. This should not be an afterthought to alleviate potential damage but baked-in as a fundamental part of their development.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

These industries have significantly impacted the way we train in the workplace. They support a faster learning curve by providing immersive demos and step-by-step tutorials in context with the subject matter’s physical manifestations.

Complicated 2-D schematics in a manual can become interactive 3-D holograms that walk the user through the process. Through virtual experiences workers such as first responders and emergency utility crews can safely be trained on how to undertake potentially dangerous tasks.

Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?

AR, VR and MR are not futuristics technologies looking for mainstream usefulness; they’re certainly changing how we lead our lives. Some applications have already been integrated in our everyday experiences. The backup cameras on today’s cars, for instance, with superimposed digital guidelines for parking is a form of XR most drivers now take for granted.

In fitness, AR can help us stay focused and take part in exercise by offering an element of fun at the same time. If you spend time in the gym, then it can revolutionize your workouts.

Many of us find that we learn more efficiently when we see things visually and so, augmented reality is encouraging this form of learning. Teachers and students are beginning to benefit from AR as it enables them to learn topics such as astronomy at a faster rate.

These are just a few applications. These technologies make it possible to visualize, make decisions and enrich our lives in ways that give us the power to improve the way we live.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

More than ever before in history, girls are studying and excelling in STEM. However, this increase in girls in STEM is not yet matched by similar increases in the representation of women working as engineers.

STEM fields are often viewed as masculine, and teachers and parents often underestimate girls’ math abilities as early as preschool.

As parents, we should work hard to break these gender stereotypes in early childhood.

In the workplace, we need to create a culture where women feel welcome. Recruiting, retaining and promoting women in STEM does not just happen–it has to be driven very deliberately.

Every aspect of a company’s culture including the recruitment process and the promotion needs to be monitored, re-evaluated and fine-tuned. This gender diversity in the workforce ultimately enhances creativity, productivity, and innovation.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

As a data scientist, most people think you have to be a mathematical genius. This myth comes from a lack of understanding about what a data scientist actually does.

Although a data scientist should have a deep understanding of statistics, probability and predictive models, with the sophisticated software we use, today’s data scientists need to focus on understanding the interpretation.

So if someone is interested in data science but is intimidated by the mathematical complexity that seems to come with it–they need to think again!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Always be yourself. Staying true to your own personality is ultimately what makes us unique–that’s our strongest asset and biggest contribution to the workplace.

Never stop learning! Mentoring is also a great opportunity for us to learn as well. You can’t teach something unless you learn all aspects of it.

Trust yourself to share your new ideas and thoughts.

Be receptive to negative comments. Negative feedback can be valuable because it allows us to monitor our performance and make the important changes we need to make.

Always maintain a healthy life-work balance. Don’t compromise life for work or the other way around. After years I realized that it’s possible to have a better balance by proper planning and having honest conversations about what matters to you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Technology has proved an effective organizing tool in support of peace. If I could inspire a movement, I’d like to widen access to technology for women in rural areas and developing countries, reduce social barriers, and promote gender inequality.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

There are several people that I’d like to meet if I could! If I want to pick one, I’d pick Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the most influential women in the world.

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

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