Afghan student Ayda Haydarpour finds a sense of purpose at Virginia Tech
At first glance, Ayda Haydarpour is like most first-year engineering students at Virginia Tech. She is adjusting to her new classes, finding her way around campus, and preparing for events like the recent student-run Engineering Expo.
However, not many college students have been featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2021 and Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21. Haydarpour earned a spot on both these lists, alongside her peers on the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, for their work on medical-based projects.
The robotics team, also known as the Afghan Dreamers, is most well-known for creating a low-cost ventilator out of used car parts to aid in the fight against COVID-19. The machine was on track to being approved for use by the Afghanistan Health Ministry before the Taliban gained control in 2021, causing the team to move to Qatar and halting advancements with the ventilator.
Haydarpour first became interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at the age of 7, when her father gave her a Super Mario video game. Instantly, she wondered how the game worked, specifically how using the joystick could control the characters in the game.
When she was 13, she joined the Digital Citizen Fund, an all-girls program focused on robotics and game development. In 2018, Haydarpour passed a comprehensive exam that earned her a spot on the Afghan Girls Robotics team, which is associated with the Digital Citizen Fund. “It was the first place that I found people, especially girls, that had the same passion and interests in STEM and tech. I found friends for life there,” said Haydarpour.
The team was created in Afghanistan before moving to Qatar and joining the Qatar Foundation’s Academic Bridge Program in 2021 to continue its work. The Qatar Foundation is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to education and research for the betterment of society.
At the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, Haydarpour and other girls received scholarships, project-based funding, and time to work on their projects in Texas A&M University’s Qatar Foundation-based lab. As part of the team, Haydarpour helped create a sanitizing robot equipped with an Ultraviolet-C light and a disinfecting spray robot, both approved for production by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health in 2021.
“The Afghan students in the program are impressive. In addition to being admirably resilient, they are extraordinarily articulate advocates for female education,” said Mark Newmark, assistant director of academic affairs at the Academic Bridge Program.
Haydarpour cites the Qatar Foundation’s public exhibition of the team’s creations as one of her most memorable experiences as an Afghan Dreamer. The exhibition included their COVID-19-related work, a robot that could detect explosive mines, a drone with mapping capabilities, and agricultural inventions.
“During the time that I was in Qatar, [the foundation] was so welcoming and supportive of our team,” Haydarpour said.
As a first-semester engineering education student, Haydarpour recently attended Gobblerfest, a universitywide fair to promote involvement in student-led organizations, to decide which robotics team she’d like to join. Currently, her top contender is Teaching Engineering & Kinematics Robotics due to its members' dedication to building problem-solving robots and participation in competitions. She plans to pursue computer science while at Virginia Tech.
Haydarpour also is part of the Leadership and Social Change Residential College, a Living-Learning Community dedicated to nurturing students to become leaders in their communities. “All of us, we need to be leaders,” she said. “One of the things that I really love about Tech is the phrase, 'Ut Prosim' (That I May Serve), because I think everything we do in our life, especially about knowledge, we have to give back to the community.”
After college, Haydarpour plans to return to Afghanistan to be with her family and teammates, whom she keeps in touch with through Whatsapp and Instagram. With her team, she hopes to open a STEM-based school where she will teach and mentor students. She also plans to start her own tech company after graduation, which will focus on making STEM education accessible.
Through her work, Haydarpour and her robotics teammates hope to clear any misconceptions about Afghanistan.
“We have this mission — we want to prove that Afghanistan is not about war and not being educated; it's also about being part of a team,” she said.
Written by Tayler Butters, a student intern with the Department of Computer Science