McEniry Award Winner Hala ElAarag, PhD, Teaches Students “to Be the Best They Can Be”

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Hala ElAarag, PhD                              Photo: Stetson University/Ciara Ocasio

Madison Gipson had never written computer code when she changed her major to computer science after her first semester at Stetson University.

Once she declared a new major, she was assigned a new faculty advisor, Computer Science Professor Hala ElAarag, PhD. And that assignment, as she would later say, would have a “huge” impact on her college experience and professional development.

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Madison Gipson ’20

“I felt very out of my element and having Dr. ElAarag as my faculty advisor was such a blessing,” said Gipson ‘20, who was named an Outstanding Senior in Computer Science. “She helped welcome me in and encourage me when everything was still very new and overwhelming.”

ElAarag also recommended Gipson get involved in activities outside of the classroom – internships, conferences and research projects – things that make a resume stand out in the job market, as she likes to tell students.

Gipson took her advice and became active in the Harvard WECode Conference, the largest student-run tech conference for women. She helped to develop an app on campus, called StetsonScene, and worked on her own student research. Now a data science intern for NASA, she is pursuing an MBA in data analytics at Stetson.

ElAarag’s dedication to student learning and success was cited in May when she received the 2021 McEniry Award for Excellence in Teaching, considered Stetson’s most prestigious award for faculty.

“Needless to say, this year’s McEniry Selection Committee had an incredibly challenging job,” said Professor Rajni Shankar-Brown, PhD, the 2020 McEniry Award winner, who announced ElAarag’s selection.

“Stetson is a community full of highly deserving teacher-scholars. This year’s awardee stood out as an exceptionally impactful educator at Stetson and also within their field,” said Shankar-Brown, the Jessie Ball duPont Endowed Chair of Social Justice Education.

ElAarag said she was surprised and humbled to receive the prestigious award.

“What really makes me so happy about my job is the connection to the students,” said ElAarag, who also received the 2020 Outstanding Engineering Educator Award from the Florida Council of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“The feeling that I give them is sincere,” she added. “This is really what I like to do and they feel it. I want them to be the best they can be.”

A Passion for Undergraduate Research

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Ou Zheng ’17

Ou Zheng graduated with a BS in computer science in 2017 and still trades emails with ElAarag every few months. He is pursuing a PhD from the University of Central Florida while working at UCF’s Smart & Safe Transportation Lab as a lead software engineer.

“She has had a significant impact on my career side,” Zheng said. “I feel as though her help and advice took my career to new heights. Her experience and excellent advice will always remain with me.”

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Christian Micklisch ’15

Christian Micklisch graduated in 2015 and is seeking a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He works there as a research assistant in the High Performance Computing Architecture and System Lab, and as a contract application programmer for Mitchell Martin.

“Some of her classes were challenging, but her method of teaching really helped me to be independent academically and professionally,” he said. “We had co-written some papers and I’ve always asked her to be my recommendation when applying to universities. She helped me get into the master’s and doctoral program at UNCC.”

ElAarag says she spends many, many hours guiding students and talking about the importance of skills like critical thinking. She encourages them to ask why things are done a certain way and if they can be done differently. Communications skills are key, too, including the ability to write research articles and make effective oral presentations.

“I tell them you can be the most talented programmer. You’re sitting in a cubicle or now at home doing an excellent job, but if you cannot defend your work and show your work, either in a written format or an oral format, then you will not succeed. You will not go up the ladder,” she said.

ElAarag has written one book, edited 11 others and written 63 articles for journals and conference proceedings. Many of these articles were co-written with her students.

Her 44-page curriculum vitae lists the accomplishments of many students, under headings like “Student Recognition Under My Supervision” and “Supervision of Research Projects.” The student projects have titles, such as “An Approach to Wireless Ad Hoc Network Routing Based on the Behavior of Slime Mold Physarum Polycephalum,” which one alumnus will present at an international conference July 19-22.

“I have a passion to do undergraduate research,” she explained. “When the students come in after high school with no knowledge at all about computer science, some of them may think, ‘Oh, I’m good at it because I play games or I can do a website.’

“But then, you work with them over the years, and after four years you’ll be able to bring them to a level that they can undergo this type of high-level research and it gets published not in undergraduate venues. It gets published in regular research venues. Some of my students actually, when we send to a journal — maybe Elsevier or SAGE — they address my undergrad as doctor,” she said.

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April 2018: From left, Stetson computer science major Erica Kok looks on as Stetson computer science professors Hala ElAarag, Daniel Plante and Joshua Eckroth judge the app-creating competition at the Greater Central Florida Tech Faire + Hackathon. Kok ’19, a star student, worked with ElAarag on her senior research project and some of her other accomplishments.

Fascinated at an early age

ElAarag credits her mother for inspiring her to become a computer scientist. As a young girl, she remembers her mother working on her PhD in engineering in Alexandria, Egypt, where Hala was born and raised. In those days, computers used punch cards (or punched cards) for data processing, such as statistics and other computations.

“I was like, ‘Oh, these punch cards do a lot. See the result?’ I was really fascinated,” Hala recalled. “At a very young age, I wanted to be a computer scientist. … Maybe the fascination started, I was in elementary school, but I was really decided in middle school.”

Her parents were kind, thoughtful people, and she brings those qualities to her interactions with students. Her father, who was an engineer, has passed away, while her mother remains an engineering professor at Alexandria University. Hala earned her BS and MS in computer science from the same university.

While there, she also met her future husband. And after they both graduated, the two decided to apply to doctoral programs in the United States.

He was accepted at the University of California at Davis and, after earning his PhD in civil engineering, was hired at the University of Central Florida. He is a Pegasus professor and chair of UCF’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering, as well as team leader at the UCF Smart & Safe Transportation Lab.

Early in their marriage, ElAarag recalled: “I found it very hard to have two parents doing PhDs when we had a child, so I decided to put my family first, stay with my daughter and then my son. I just worked part-time at a research lab at UC Davis.”

Once the family relocated to Orlando, she entered the doctoral program at UCF. She graduated in 2001, worked as an adjunct professor at UCF and was hired the next year as a faculty member at Stetson.

Higher education provides a nice work-family balance, she said. Still, it wasn’t easy, commuting one hour each way from Orlando to Stetson and then shuttling her kids to karate, tennis, soccer, book clubs, science clubs and math clubs.

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April 2019: From left, Hala ElAarag, professor of computer science; Joshua Eckroth, PhD, assistant professor of computer science; Daniel Plante, PhD, professor of math and computer science; and Basar Koc, PhD, assistant professor of computer science, judge an app-building contest at the Greater Central Florida Tech Faire + HatterHacks.

“When I think back, I don’t know how I did it,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t sleep that much. It’s maybe a gift, but what helps is organization and efficiency. I’m very, very organized and efficient.”

Today, her daughter is an otolaryngology-head and neck surgeon, finishing up her residency at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. Next year, she will start a fellowship in a combined program at Columbia and Cornell universities. Her son just finished his medical degree and is working on a master’s degree in health sciences.

“I had high expectations for them [her children] and that same expectation I have for my students,” she said.

‘A Lifelong Relationship’

Madison Gipson, the NASA intern, credits ElAarag with helping her discover her passion for computer science. The professor had suggested she attend a conference, called Harvard WECode (Women Engineers Code at Harvard University). The group connects college-aged women in computer science and other STEM fields, and provides workshops and panels with industry experts.

“Because of Dr. ElAarag, I was able to go to this conference on a Stetson-funded scholarship,” Gipson said. “I consider that conference the turning point of my college career. I learned more than I ever thought I would from it, and came back to Stetson inspired and more passionate about my field than I thought I ever could be!”

Not surprisingly, such experiences create lasting bonds between students and the professor. ElAarag tries to gently guide them every step of the way. When she recommends a conference, she will follow up and make sure the student has registered. Before students start their senior year, she asks, “ ‘Okay, do you have your resume ready?’ I’ll be very happy to look at it.’

“Sometimes, I get a job announcement,” ElAarag continued. “Employers reach out to me all the time and I just forward it. And then, a week later someone says, ‘Oh, thank you. I got the job.’ It took me 30 seconds and I changed one person’s life. It’s just a very nice feeling that you are impacting those students’ life in a good way and they feel that they have me not until they graduate, but it’s a lifelong relationship.”

-Cory Lancaster