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Hamza Hallal

From how he ended up in Honors to the his undergraduate research and student organizations, Hamza Hallal’s Honors College story is full of twists and turns—things have been good, even if they haven’t happened quite as he expected.

One twist is the story of how Hamza came to Honors. While he considered the Honors College right out of high school in Florida, Hamza opted to stay nearer to home for a while and go to community college. When he finished there, he again looked at the University of Houston and this time, decided to attend. At least one thing that drew Hamza to Houston was the opportunity to live with his sister—an Honors alumna—and be close to family. In fact, during a visit to her before deciding on Houston, he visited Honors and remembers meeting Jodie Köszegi. Meeting the assistant dean while considering Honors might have helped his decision, although maybe not; about meeting Jodie for the first time, Hamza says, “You don’t always get to meet someone who makes fun of you right away, but in a weird way it makes me more comfortable.” Still, Hamza chose Houston and moved in with his sister and brother-in-law… until they ended up moving to Fort Worth. So now Hamza has ended up living by himself. Despite his sister’s move, and while he misses the beaches and his friends in Orlando, he is happy with living on his own and his choice to attend the Honors College.

Another slightly unexpected twist for the mechanical engineering major is the research Hamza, thanks to his Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), began with engineering professor Haluk Ogmen on vision and how the brain and eyes work together. Working mostly with electrical engineers, Hamza studies visual processing and object-based attention “I wanted to try something new and get away a little from my major,” Hamza says. “This particular research combines several fields including electrical engineering and psychology. I thought it’d be really interesting to follow that path.” Hamza’s research builds on previous studies—which measure reaction times when a person’s attention shifts within or between static objects and show how our brains react faster to a cue within an object we’re already focused on. Using a CRT screen and special hardware and software—and building his programming skills in the process—this study measures these same processes and rules with moving objects. He says, “I learned so much during this process. Sometimes, it was because I needed it to complete the experiment—like programming or taking apart a controller. Other times, I was learning from my faculty mentor about the research process, the theories, and the analytical thinking needed to create new knowledge. It was a fantastic experience.” The effort, which contributes to one of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for the field—reverse engineering the human brain—will help us understand the brain’s design and may contribute to fields from the treatment of neurological disorders to the development of artificial intelligence. 

Even Hamza’s extracurricular activities have a slight twist. While he is involved in some organizations you might expect—Honors Ambassadors and Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society alumni—he has also been an officer in the Society of Women Engineers. When he asked his sister and brother-in-law, both of who were engineering majors at the University of Houston, about the best engineering organization, they told him to get involved with SWE. “I was a little bit hesitant to join a club for women, thinking I’d be the odd man out,” he laughs. “Fortunately, it ended up working out really well. I had the opportunity to implement a very successful outreach event for local high school students while having a lot of fun with my fellow SWEsters.”

Hamza isn’t sure yet what comes after college for him, although after working in Ogmen’s lab, he’s considering graduate school. “We might have to follow this study with one or two more, but then I think we might be able to try for a publication,” he says. A publication and research in electrical engineering would make it much easier to consider graduate school in that field. Mostly, he says, he “hopes to change lives and do something that has an impact on the greater scheme of things.” With this work, he’s well on his way.