East Chapel Hill High Student Recognized for STEM and Service
Abia Ahmed wasted no time making her mark at East Chapel Hill High when she began her freshman year in 2015. Chelsey Paulsen, former math teacher, said that Ahmed approached her the second week of school, seeking a mentor and adviser for a club aimed at bridging the gender gap in technology at her new school. “As a 13 year old, she was aware there was a problem in our world and came up with a solution to fix it,” said Paulsen. “She wanted girls to be educated and encouraged to study computer science. When she approached me for the first time, she was very confident. She had done research to see who would be a good advisor for her club by asking administration, other teachers and students. During this first interaction, she wanted to make sure I understood that we were trying to change how women see technology.”
“Abia’s determination to eliminate the gender gap in technology is nothing short of amazing,” Paulsen said.
Ahmed rarely “thinks small,” and she often side steps or leaps over challenges that other high school students might view as obstacles. Despite her youth, her vision as a freshman was clear and her goal attainable. She already knew about the national program, Girls Who Code, so she didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. She found volunteer instructors for the new club by contacting several technology companies around the Triangle as well as the University of North Carolina’s computer science department. Her initial recruits included the head of that department at UNC, as well as a senior verification engineer from NVIDIA. UNC undergraduates in computer science provided the hands-on instruction. Ahmed coordinated with all of them herself, and she never hung back from advocating for changes when she believed they were needed.
The first year of Girls Who Code at East involved two instructors and 10 students. When Ahmed began hearing about girls from other local middle and high schools who wanted to join, she created a new structure so all members would meet with their mentors on UNC campus, and the club opened to every girl in the Triangle who wanted to learn coding. By the fall of 2017, the club had reached capacity with 10 volunteers and over 40 students, but that simply meant that Ahmed began fundraising for a further expansion.
Ahmed continues to stretch her teaching wings whenever she can, and she loves to work with younger students in hopes that they, too, fall in love with coding. Paulsen said, “If she hears other students say that they can’t accomplish their goals or that they want to give up, she will stop what she is doing and encourage them. She will try to help them figure out the problem, give encouraging words, or tell them to try a different method.”
After her sophomore year, Ahmed worked in a lab at the UNC School of Pharmacy, and in that setting, she learned about the cutting edge research that applies genetics toward finding the best-matched medications for patients. Her eyes light up when she speaks about personalized medicine, and the frontiers she has begun to explore in using DNA to diagnose conditions and prescribe medications.
Last spring at Campbell University, Ahmed received a first place, regional award for Aspirations in Computing with NCWIT (National Center for Women and Informational Technology). This past summer, she served as a Shodor Mentor Center intern in Durham, and for that volunteer service, she was honored with a 2018 Governor’s Medallion, recognizing the top volunteers in North Carolina.
This year she is completing her fourth year as a biomedical sciences student in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program with Project Lead the Way (PLTW), and she loves her studies in biomed. Paulsen said, “Towards the end of the first year of our club, she asked if we could incorporate medicine into our coding. When the teachers and I said yes, she already had a plan for how to do it. She contacted the Shodor Foundation in Durham to teach our club how to model medical situations using programming. The girls learned to run simulations to model disease spread considering numerous variables.”
She is hopeful her legacy at East will be that she created a STEM club which is an inclusive and welcoming environment for female students. “I am not only growing as an individual, but I am helping other female students explore careers in computer science and reduce the gender gap.”
To learn more about Biomedical Sciences at CHCCS, see