Couples who dream together, stay together: Bangladeshi couple graduates with their Ph.D.s

This UAB couple traveled seven seas to live their dream of getting quality higher education in the United States and are graduating together with their doctoral degrees this summer. 

Raiful and Taiaba InsideRaiful Hasan, Ph.D., and Taiaba Afrin, Ph.D.
Photography: Andrea Mabry
Moving to a new country, living through the culture shock and navigating the language barrier are already big challenges. Add academic stress and long-distance relationships to the list, and that made up the life of one University of Alabama at Birmingham couple. Raiful Hasan and Taiaba Afrin, both from Dhaka, Bangladesh, came to the United States to pursue their doctorates. Through resilience and the help of mentors, they persevered through it all and successfully defended their doctoral theses this July.

Despite the challenges, Hasan and Afrin, both College of Arts and Sciences student researchers, showed exceptional academic prowess in their respective fields. Hasan is graduating with a Ph.D. in computer science, and Afrin is graduating with a Ph.D. in biology. 


Hasan’s research: addressing pedestrian safety

The use of smart devices has become pervasive, especially among the younger generation, which causes distraction. Even when people are walking on the road, they are consuming content through their devices, increasing chances of accidents because of their divided cognitive abilities. Hasan’s research focuses on identifying such distractions, interactions and privacy concerns, particularly on pedestrian safety.

Under the mentorship of Ragib Hasan, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Computer Science, Hasan developed StreetBit, a low-cost technology that effectively warns distracted pedestrians while crossing the street. His research proposal was awarded by the Alabama Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research’s Graduate Research Scholars Program for two years, and he received grants from Sigma Xi as the sole principal investigator. Hasan placed second at the 2022 International Conference on Digital Health student research competition for developing StreetBit.

Raifu and Afrin Stream"Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t even go back home to see our families in Bangladesh for a long time. So, we both wanted to make sure we finished our Ph.D.s and made this sacrifice worth it. This is what kept us going through it all.”
Photography: Andrea Mabry
The UAB Sparkman Center for Global Health in the School of Public Health named Hasan a Sparkman fellow, for developing this safety system for pedestrians to mitigate the emerging public health challenge. According to a recent study, StreetBit could yield an estimated net annual benefit of $11.8 million for the state of Alabama. Currently, Hasan is serving on the editorial board as a feature editor of XRDS, a flagship student-led magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery

“I am forever grateful to my adviser Dr. Ragib Hasan,” Hasan said. “His continuous guidance, patience and faith in my abilities have made all the difference. He taught me the essentials of research and important life lessons, particularly how to stay gentle amidst all pressures.”

Hasan’s accolades include the College of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Award and the Division of Student Affairs’ Outstanding Graduate Student, among others. 

He will start his career in academia as a tenure track assistant professor of computer science at Kent State University in the fall. 

Afrin’s research: finding protection for food crops

Everyone gets a bacterial infection such as food poisoning at some point in their life, but most people do not realize that plants can experience the same. Each year, plant diseases cause about 10 percent-28 percent of total crop loss, which costs the global economy around $220 billion. Afrin’s research focuses on understanding the defense mechanisms plants opt for to fight these bacteria and the zigzag pattern of the battle between plants and the bacteria that are trying to kill them.

“My research findings are a great tool for increasing disease resistance in almost all the crops,” Afrin said. “This discovery will help the farmers grow more healthy food and ensure food security for an ever-increasing population.”

UABCreated by AfrinAt UAB, Afrin was selected as UAB Blazer fellow for the Department of Biology and NSF GRSP fellow. In these roles, she served as a teacher and a mentor to graduate, undergraduate and high school students while leading research projects. She was selected to serve as a teaching assistant for introductory biology. Karolina Mukhtar, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biology, has been Afrin’s mentor, playing a monumental role in Afrin’s success.

“Dr. Mukhtar was a huge help,” Afrin said. “She not only advised my research but also encouraged me to push my boundaries. As an introvert, I was always hesitant to speak in public; but she motivated me to teach, and it has been an incredible experience. Apart from that, she also used her personal experience to give me tips about how to manage academic stress and maintain a work-life balance.”

To supplement her challenging degree, Afrin also participated in extracurricular competitions at UAB. For example, in 2019, she placed first in the artistic category of the annual photo and video contest at the Department of Biology, uniquely showcasing her Blazer spirit and symbolizing her commitment to scientific inquiry.

In the future, Afrin has plans to pursue a career in research and academia.

A strong team together

Raiful and Taiba Walking TKReady to walk through life together, the couple has big plans for the future.
Photography: Andrea Mabry
When Hasan and Afrin came to UAB, the challenges of work-life balance and finding time for common interests during a robust schedule became difficult. However, they supported each other’s dreams, emerging as a more mature and united team.

“From day one, we decided that our education — our research— will be our priority,” Hasan said. “Whatever came in the way, we worked around it through time management and compromises.” 

According to Afrin, being at the same stage of life — both pursuing their doctoral degrees, helped them understand each other and be there to support each other.

“In the beginning, we were not as mature to handle these challenges; but we have truly evolved over these years,” Afrin said. “Being doctoral students at the same time but in different fields has significantly helped us both. When we needed suggestions or advice regarding our work, we were able to share a unique perspective from different angles with each other.”

The couple is set to walk during the Summer Commencement Ceremony 2023 on Aug. 11.