Text: Ville Heirola

Iran-born and Turku-highly-educated, Dr. Sepinoud Azimi is a professional in data science and AI. Dr. Azimi is currently working as a Senior Lecturer at Åbo Akademi, along with a host of “extra-curricular” activities such as being an Ambassador of Women in Data Science. Splitting their time between three main research interest (which we’ll discuss later on), Dr. Sepinoud Azimi is a force in Turku data science and AI, with a host of ideas about where the scene is and where it should go. Moreover, Dr. Azimi is also an international talent in Turku with personal experience of how and what is it like to find oneself in completely new surroundings.

We talked to Dr. Azimi about her experiences, ideas and what Turku’s potential in data science might be. Here’s what we learned.

A Sense of Being Welcome

– I came to Turku in 2009. The reason why I wanted to leave is similar to a lot of people: looking for a better life. I wanted to come to Europe because of the proximity to Iran and my family who remain there. I looked into several universities and countries. I received many approval letters, and chose Turku because the wording made me feel like they really wanted to have me. That initial sense of welcoming and friendliness was not the case in every country. Of course, I checked the quality of all universities I applied to, but I also wanted to come to where they wanted me and where I felt I had a chance to integrate.

Dr. Sepinoud Azimi has been involved with the Turku AI and data science scene for over a decade.

– I already had a Master’s in Mathematics when I came to Turku, and here I decided on doing another Master’s, this time in IT. While I was finishing that degree, I also started working on getting my PhD. Then I moved into postdocs and just recently got my Senior Lecturer position at ÅA. Now I can say I’m here to stay.

While Dr. Azimi has done a lot of impressive work, it hasn’t always been easy. Fixed-term contract and employment-based residence can combine to create unneeded stress. Landing the right job also involves a certain amount of luck.

– There was not a defined system for supporting international talents back then, but I felt good about it. Worrying about permits and jobs is more or less always there, more so towards the end of a fixed-term contract. That, combined with the scarcity of applicable positions, often meant I was unable to plan my life ahead more than a few months at a time. I did a lot of work, finished degrees, but the stress was always there. Building networks and emotional connections is affected by not knowing whether you’re able to stay in the country. The result is an emotional rollercoaster of successes followed by fears. Of course now I am happy to stay and work here.

Explaining Explainable AI

That rollercoaster has brought Dr. Azimi to a position where they do pioneering work in a host of fields that seem, to the untrained eye, wildly different from each other.

– My work has three main tracks: one is health-related, working with medical AI; one with maritime and smart vessels; and one with gender equality. I’m also an Ambassador for Women in Data Science. While these may seem different, what is under the hood is the same: applications of AI and data science. For example, I’m interested in explainable AI, which is kind of the umbrella that covers all of my work. It’s a form of AI that explains why programmes, algorithms and so on reach the results and conclusions they do. Explainable AI also helps fight the unseen biases in AI and the distrust people have by illuminating what is happening in different AI applications.

Unlocking Potential Through Communication

Dr. Azimi knew Turku’s institutes of higher education to be high-quality back when applying for them. Through years of work and building connections, Dr. Azimi now has an idea of what the AI and data science scene in the Turku region is like, and where it might go. The central thing, for her, is communication.

– If I didn’t have enough scientific and community support I wouldn’t be able to work here. So the support is there, but people and groups working in AI have a tendency to isolate themselves. I might not know what the person next door is working on, and they might have the perfect solution to a problem I have. Things like the AI Business Academy are great opportunities to alleviate this lack of communication. The terminology and expectations, for example, between more health-oriented people and robotics are different.

– Another point is having too ambitious or too noble ideas about what AI can do. Occasionally, the solution to a company’s problem might not be AI, but a bit of statistical analysis. Turku has the scientific and technical knowledge and resources, but more communication between everyone working in AI would not hurt at all. With increased communication and linking between different projects, Turku has basically unlimited potential.

Opportunities for International Students and Graduates

Dr. Azimi also teaches and supervises a lot of students at Åbo Akademi. In general, the phenomenon of international students leaving Finland due to not finding suitable employment after graduation is a hot topic.

– There is a huge amount of potential for students and graduates wanting to build their careers here. However, international talents do face hurdles that others don’t. They need to be seen not as a risk, but as an investment. When that happens, there are a lot of opportunities. Internships and industry placements are also important in this regard. Of course, I understand that employing someone for a couple of months is not free for the employer either if it doesn’t work out. Every investment has its risks.

AI and machine learning are trendy right now
Machine learning has emerged as one of the most talked-about form of AI

In recent years, Dr. Azimi has seen her students’ interests align with the general trends in AI and data science.

– The students we have are fantastic. Machine Learning is all the rage right now, and they are gravitating towards that as well. The possibility of getting hired and having a better salary is higher in that segment.

High salaries are one thing. Yet, Dr. Azimi emphasises the overall view of Turku and Finland as more meritocratic and balanced places to build one’s career than many other regions.

– This is the good thing about Finland: If you want to advance in your field, you have a good chance to do that. You might not get paid as much as you would elsewhere, but you don’t spend as much either. Income inequality and unmerited wealth are not as big here. You get a sense of fairness in Finland. You end up feeling like you are where you should be.