Science Foundation Ireland

Merim Dzaferagic: Human of CONNECT

Merim and Conor with NDRC CEO, Ben Hurley. (Photo: NDRC)

Dr Merim Dzaferagic is a Research Fellow at CONNECT in Trinity College Dublin, and co-founder of Nearby – a startup company emerging from his research.

How did you get to this point in your life?
I did my undergrad and Master’s degrees in telecommunications engineering at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia, and then started working for a telecoms operator. However, I always wanted to do something more challenging, and research was the right answer. After hearing about a PhD position at CONNECT in Trinity College Dublin I got in touch with Dr Nicola Marchetti and Dr Irene Macaluso. We discussed the research possibilities, and it was then that I really knew what I wanted to do. I did a PhD and then, after finishing my thesis, stayed on as a postdoc for further research.

Is there anything about your career journey that you didn’t expect?
There are quite a few things. I always loved technology and coding – I started coding when I was about 10 years old – but I never thought that it could open so many doors. During my relatively short career I have already met so many amazing people and learned so much. I’m still learning. Also, shortly after finishing my PhD, I got the chance to lecture at Maynooth University which was another unexpected thing. I really enjoyed the experience of working with students. I teach object-oriented programming – so coding again!

What is your research about?
Instead of simply telling machines and networks how to behave, I design them in a way so that they can learn a behaviour; my job is simply to think of all the examples of good and bad behavior that the machines and networks can learn. I basically raise them to be good, by showing them examples of good and bad.
Working in CONNECT has also allowed me to explore a more entrepreneurial path by establishing a startup company called Nearby. It all started from research that I did during my PhD and it allowed me to meet great people in the startup community in Ireland. Our idea involves the use of machine learning to process information gathered from a communication network, and to use the knowledge to dynamically reconfigure the network to optimize its operation. My team and I are exploring other commercialization projects as well, and every new piece of work is potentially a new big idea that will hopefully result in a better tomorrow and a nice working environment for a large group of professionals.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy almost all aspects of being a scientist. First of all, you are surrounded with people who, instead of wondering about the future, are actually designing it. The feeling of being part of such a community is really inspiring.
I love solving problems, and that is why I really enjoy the fact that every new piece of work is a new challenge. I learn something new almost every day. I also enjoy the collaboration with people from all around the world. In CONNECT you don’t have to leave the building to feel the power of multicultural experiences.

What is the most challenging element of your work?
Even though you are part of a large community, you can often feel lonely in your pursuits. Proving the merit of your work and challenging the mainstream ideas is sometimes really hard and very often it is hard to find the right people to help you with this challenge.

What do you think could be the next defining trend in technology?
It is not a good thing to make predictions as it is so easy to get it wrong, however let me try. One thing that is certain (it is already happening): we have all become aware of the great power of information. What I mean is, we have seen examples of information being used to build products for advertisement, optimizing products, and affecting the opinion of the general public, such as during elections. However, I believe that, so far, we have only worked on the small, easy to envision projects. Machine learning and data science is part of almost every undergrad programme, which means that we are educating an army of young minds that will identify new applications and change the way we think of networks, transportation, fitness, food…All aspects of our life will be supported by the huge amount of information that surrounds us and it will simplify our way of living, which will give us more time to focus on the things that matter, the people that surround us – our family and friends.

Finally, what piece of life advice would you give to someone interested in a STEM career?
I would say that this is not advice for people interested in STEM, but for people interested in any career path: Simply, go for it. Whatever interests you will make you happy while you do it and as a result of that it will make you good at it. Society does not need people in STEM or Arts or any other area per se. We need people that are good at what they do.

CONNECT is the world leading Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications. CONNECT is funded under the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centres Programme and is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund. We engage with over 35 companies including large multinationals, SMEs and start-ups. CONNECT brings together world-class expertise from ten Irish academic institutes to create a one-stop-shop for telecommunications research, development and innovation.

Humans of CONNECT
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