Manaal Siddiqui, Conservation + Tech ’22 (Computer Science): “Finding a balance between dreaming and doing”

Manaal Siddiqui is a computer science major, and a Fung Fellow on the Conservation + Tech track. Here, she shares about her desire to blend tech, design, and activism in her professional life, her experience as the Curriculum & Project Lead on the Fung Fellowship Student Board, and her passion for ethical technology.

Tell us about yourself.

Hello! My name is Manaal Siddiqui and I’m a junior studying computer science. I’m a current Fung Fellow on the Conservation + Tech track! I grew up in San Jose, CA, with my parents, my older sister, and the inability to sit still. I’m a dreamer and a doer and most of my life has centered around finding a balance between the two. In my free time, I like to read, write, DIY, daydream, make art, go on outdoor adventures, have random deep rants with my friends, and experiment with different hot chocolate flavors (my current favorite is orange peppermint).

What do you study and why did you choose it?

I’m currently studying computer science, and my journey into the field was an interesting one.

When I was in elementary school, people would ask me all the time what I wanted to be. I’d always answer with a long list of careers, because I wanted to be them all: “Scientist, Artist, Poet, Engineer, Author, Mathematician, Businesswoman, Councilmember, CEO.” They would inevitably ask, “Yeah, but what if you had to pick one?” and when I said I wouldn’t need to, they’d laugh it off as a child’s ignorance.

As I slowly realized that society wanted me to narrow down my interests, I started playing hopscotch with them, jumping between one or the other, in an effort to find The One that would work.

I watched a show on astronomy, and immediately I was entranced by the mysteriousness of space. I could be the first female astronaut on Mars! Later, I got involved with my city government and thought I could have a real impact as a governor or president. I started taking art classes and fell in love with the kinds of stories you could express with a single stroke of a paintbrush. I was constantly changing my mind, rushing to find just one thing. But I couldn’t, and it limited my perspective to just one little white box at a time. It was stressing me out and hindering my potential.

Then, I signed up for AP Computer Science on a whim. As I learned more about technical concepts, I realized how code was in everything. There was no end to its applications in other fields that inspire me — from activism to design, engineering to government, and psychology to math. I was able to combine my various interests, creating a fusion that I liked more than any individual.

For some individuals, it’s easy to see one clear path ahead of them. But for others, there are multiple that reach out to us. Instead of feeling the need to just choose one, we can build a road that connects them all.

“For some individuals, it’s easy to see one clear path ahead of them. But for others, there are multiple that reach out to us. Instead of feeling the need to just choose one, we can build a road that connects them all.”

For me, that was the intersection of tech, design, and activism, one that I find incredibly empowering and rewarding as it continues to shape my current trajectory.

What led you to apply to and join the Fung Fellowship?

During high school, I served as a board member for a few different nonprofits. By addressing the concerns of youth and minorities, I became aware of various social disparities and the necessity of ensuring representation in all spaces.

As my skill set expanded, I began pursuing activism from the mindset of a developer and designer, whether that meant building a platform to empower students towards positive mental health habits or creating artwork that draws attention to the effects of prejudice on psychological development.

I joined the Fung Fellowship because I saw it as an opportunity to continue to use technology and design to address different issues, like inequities in healthcare or environmental degradation. The Fung Fellowship also seemed like a great way to come full-circle and return to working with nonprofits within a diverse community of people facing similar impasses.

What inspired you to become the Curriculum & Project Lead? What’s that been like?

I noticed that many of us found the first project challenging, and I wanted to help ensure for future projects that students had the resources and the support they needed to succeed. In addition, I aimed to empower all fellow voices and make sure they felt safe and comfortable doing so. I’ve really enjoyed working with both fellows and the teaching team collaboratively to iterate on student feedback and foster open discussion and solution-brainstorming.

What are your professional goals?

After college, I’d like to work at the intersection of code and design, at a company that values individual creativity, ethical tech, and community empowerment. Specifically, I’d love to work at Pinterest, contributing to a platform that inspires millions and brings them together in a safe, innovative space. I also want to start a company someday, but I’m still in the ideation phase.

What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?

In Silicon Valley and the tech industry as a whole, there’s this demand to churn out products as quickly and profitably as possible, without considering the consequences and implications on society and already-existing social inequalities. In this way, for example, millions of marginalized groups and minorities are further displaced or disadvantaged.

I want to break that mindset and encourage ethical mindsets across all levels of technical development and leadership. Ethical tech isn’t just about addressing issues like mental health or pollution, it’s about asking “What is my product going to do? How will it impact different groups of people? How can I make it inclusive and accessible, especially if it’s a kind of resource some don’t have access to?” In my opinion, that’s just the bare minimum, but it has to start from somewhere and I truly want to encourage and spearhead that discourse.

I also aim to continue using my skills in design, code, and leadership to build platforms, resources, and spaces that help empower the historically underserved and bring communities together. Some of my past work has focused on mental health, Islamophobia, women in STEM, and financial literacy, borne out of my own experiences and observations.

What are some of your hobbies and passions?

For years, art has provided me with a steady outlet for creativity and frustration. After I became involved in nonprofit leadership and my awareness of various disparities grew, I began to use art to draw attention to issues like discrimination, mental health, and corruption.

Then, I later started using code — a modern artistic medium. For example, heartbroken by the number of my peers battling mental health problems, I mobilized a team to build a website that helps students become cognizant of negative self-talk and reflect constructively on thinking habits.

Creating a personable (and not too clinical) user interface that balances aesthetic with utility requires me to consider various design principles and elements — not unlike traditional art. To me, the keyboard is no less powerful than the pen. Both are tools I employ interchangeably.

“To me, the keyboard is no less powerful than the pen. Both are tools I employ interchangeably.”

Since then, most of my projects have revolved around that fusion of art, activism, and code. I hope to continue that path into my professional life.

Can you share some of the design challenges or projects you’ve worked on or you’re currently working on in the Fellowship?

I’m currently working on a project called Save Our Soil that’s meant to bring awareness of heavy metal toxicity in fertilizer that is often a byproduct of industrial waste. We’re going to be using data aggregation and analysis on waste tracking systems to determine where it goes and how it affects human health.

Is there something you are currently working on/interested in outside of the Fung Fellowship that you would like to share?

There are a few extracurriculars that I’m part of that I’ve found incredibly empowering! I serve as the Communications Director on the Muslim Mental Health Initiative board, working to raise awareness of mental health resources and support for Muslim students on campus. In addition, I’m a developer for Blueprint, a campus organization focused on tech for social good, in which we collaborate with nonprofit organizations to help them address community needs. I’m also on the Student Tech Helpdesk team.

What advice would you give to a future Fung Fellow?

Before you start your design challenges, make sure you understand the project deliverables and create a project roadmap/timeline that breaks down all the main action items. If there’s anything you’re unsure about, it’s important to ask questions early on. Try to balance the different skills within your team as well, be clear about each team member’s contributions, and take advantage of any resources available!

Fun fact: I know a few tricks on the flying trapeze and highly recommend it!

Favorite quote: “Just a masterpiece trying to master peace” — Dalai Aya

Connect with Manaal.

Edited by Danielle Valdez.

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