Researcher

Dr Sondoss Ashraf Abd El Aziz El Sawah

Biography

Most of the contemporary persistent issues that we (as individuals, organizations and societies) grapple with (e.g. climate change, risks to national security, resource degradation) are caused by our limited capacity to foresee the delayed and cumulative impacts (e.g. socio-economic, security, environmental) of our decisions and policies. To deal with these challenges, we need to liberate ourselves from conventional ways of thinking focused...view more

Most of the contemporary persistent issues that we (as individuals, organizations and societies) grapple with (e.g. climate change, risks to national security, resource degradation) are caused by our limited capacity to foresee the delayed and cumulative impacts (e.g. socio-economic, security, environmental) of our decisions and policies. To deal with these challenges, we need to liberate ourselves from conventional ways of thinking focused around narrowly defined sub-problems leading to short-term solutions and unintended consequences. Instead, we need to hone our abilities to see connections, develop big-pictures, and formulate systemic solutions. In other words, we need to become systems thinkers. Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary research field, concerned with drawing on multiple scientific areas (e.g. learning science, decision science, operations research) to support problem solving and decision making in situations featured by complexity, uncertainty, and plurality of views.

I have focused my research and teaching programs on advancing the science and practice of systems thinking, and especially its applications in public policy, engineering, and education. I have ventured on developing methods, tools, and applications to challenge and stretch the boundaries of conventional mental models beyond immediate and direct outcomes to understand the long-term and system-wide effects created by these mental models.

Research Impact

I have produced over 90 academic publications including articles in reputable journals, a diverse range of book chapters, conference papers, reports, blogs, and edited collections. My publications include journal articles recognized by the Web of Science to be high impact articles in computer science. My research has been recognized by 8 awards from national and international bodies, including the prestigious Research Award by the International Environmental Modelling and Software Society (2018). I am also the first female recipient of the Australian Operations Research Society Rising Star Award (2016). Both awards are devoted to recognize science talents and academic excellence.

Through a series of ARC and industry funded projects, I have led and worked in several projects that pursue high stake public policy issues, such as: climate change adaptation, risk assessment of the cumulative impacts of mining on ecological and social assets, sustainable management of Australia’s groundwater resource, and policy design with consideration of food-environment-water-energy nexus.

The policy impact of my research program has been recognized by the prestigious Peter Cullen Trust (PCT) fellowship award (outstanding fellow of the year; 2014). This fellowship recognizes leaders in science and policy who have an impact in bridging the science-policy gap.

Since I joined UNSW Canberra in 2014, I focused my attention on broadening the impact of my research program by extending the application of systems thinking to defence and asset management applications. Part of this focus is the transference of the research on systems thinking into practical and accessible tools that can be used to promote systems thinking in decision areas related to Australia’s future force design and securing the sustainability of our strategic assets. These efforts have led to the set up of the systems modelling program at the Capability Systems Center. As a part of my role as a deputy director of the Capability Systems Center, I coordinate and lead large scale industry funded research projects, and building research capabilities for systems thinking and modelling.

Recently, I have been a chief investigator on ARC Discovery Project on "Machine-education methodologies and algorithms for designing trusted multi-skilled evolutionary learners". This is an exciting project where I explore the novel interactions between AI, education, and systems thinking methodologies as a knowledge co-design framework.

Education Impact

Promoting systems thinking is not only about the development of methods and tools, but more importantly about schooling our minds to see the world in a different way.  I strongly believe that equipping our students with these knowledge and skillsets is essential for building their capacity to deal with future challenges. Therefore, since I joined UNSW Canberra I have focused my teaching efforts on reinvigorating the education of systems thinking and modelling at UNSW. 

Because of its strong learning-orientated and inquiry-based nature, the field of systems thinking/modelling lies in the research-education nexus. I have focused some of my efforts into adopting a research-led approach for my teaching. For example, I have a successful research grant from the US National Science Foundation on identifying and codifying the core modelling practices to promote sharing of knowledge and experience for both research and education purposes. The grant has resulted in several publications that serve as educational material for both teachers and students.

I have worked on the design of a curriculum for systems thinking focused on leadership development and capacity building for decision makers in public policy. The learning objective of the curriculum is to provide practical methods and practices to help participants develop a holistic view on the problems they face in their organization, and recognize the role of their own perceptions and attitudes in creating delays and undesirable consequences.

These efforts resulted in peer-reviewed publications, (invited) conference presentations, and workshops. For example, in 2019, I was invited to teach in the leading European Summer School on decision making and policy design. The summer school, an EU initiative, brought together authorities in the area of decision analysis to create momentum around various decision support approaches. 

Outreach Activities

To augment my research and teaching efforts, I have worked on building a community of practice to promote systems thinking in the research and practice of public policy. This led to the creation of the IEEE Systems modelling conference in 2017, as an annual event to provide practitioners and researchers with forum to exchange knowledge and expertise around systems thinking applications.

Government agencies drew on my modelling experience several times. For example, I have contributed to a commissioned review of the current practices for employing models for decision support by the State Government in QLD. As a result of this effort, I have co-authored a report to the QLD State Government on the good modelling practices for guiding model-based decision-making (2018). I have been commissioned by the Department of Defence for delivering several professional educational courses on the use of systems models for problem solving and decision-making.

Research topics

  • Systems thinking and modelling
  • Development of multi-method modelling processes and methods
  • Pedagogy of systems and participatory modelling
  • Learning and decision making 
  • Complex socio-environmental-technical problems
  • Interaction between system thinking, modelling, and AI

 

Professional Services

 

 


My Grants

I have attracted research grants from Australia and overseas, including:

  • 2020-2024, Chief-investigator, ARC Discovery Project (AUD 580,000), Machine-education methodologies and algorithms for designing trusted multi-skilled evolutionary learners.
  • 2017-2019, Co-investigator, research grants (AUD 642,178) from the Commonwealth Government to support the development of model-based decision making frameworks to inform the management of strategic Navy assets (e.g. the Future Submarine Program).
  • 2017, Co-investigator, research grant (USD 25,000) from the US National Science Foundation devoted to synthesize knowledge on the state-of-art and challenges in socio-ecological models for actionable science
  • 2016, Co-investigator, research grant (USD 60,000) from the US National Science Foundation devoted to develop practical guidelines on core modelling practices in integrated water management projects.
  • 2013, Co-investigator, a research grant (AUD 90,000) from the local Government to develop a modelling framework to support water conservation efforts at the Condamine region, one of the most iconic and yet water-stressed regions in QLD. 
  • 2011,  Co-investigator, Category 1 research grant (AUD 475,578) by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, from a combined funding source provided by the Government (Commonwealth and State) and industry, to develop a systems modeling framework for assessing climate change impacts on water resource systems, and flow on effects on ecological responses

 


My Awards

  • Best Paper Award by the International Conference of Management Science and Industrial Engineering (2019)
  • The Early Career Research Award by the International Environmental Modelling and Software Society (2018)
  • Best Paper Award by the International Council on Systems Engineering (2017)
  • The Australian Society of Operations Research Rising Star Award (2016).
  • Modelling and Simulation Society of Australia and New Zealand (biannual) Early Career Research Excellence award (2015).
  • Peter Cullen Trust fellowship award for leadership in bridging science-policy gap (outstanding fellow of the year; 2014)
  • Best Reviewer’s Award from the international Journal of Environmental Modelling and Software (2012)
  • The Australian Water Association (AWA) Award for best postgraduate water research (2010)

My Research Activities

  • Leading a research project on the development of model-based decision support framework to inform sustainable asset management. The framework has been applied and used in projects related to decision support for strategic national assets such as the Future Submarine Program and design of future navy capabilities.

My Teaching

I am currently the coordinator of the Masters of Systems Engineering. I teach the following courses at the post-graduate level

  • Systems thinking and modeling (2015-)
  • Simulation Application (2015-)

In addition, I have delivered 30+ professional development courses on the use of systems thinking in complex problem solving to many Government and industrial agencies (e.g. Royal Australian Force)

View less

Contact

+61 2 6268 8098