Rising Star: A 16-Year-Old’s Journey to Becoming a Computer Scientist
Photo depicting eight students and their two coaches at the FIRST Global Challenge
Oct 6, 2023
  • Ammar was raised in a rural village in Malaysia
  • FIRST® Global has given him the opportunity to dream beyond his geographical roots 

Ammar Akhmal wants to be a computer scientist. 

It’s a big dream for a 16-year-old who calls Kampung La—a small village in Terengganu, Malaysia—home. Nestled between coconut palms, just a couple dozen wooden houses in a mosaic of colors line the hamlet’s main street. Here, the rustle of palm fronds drowns the hum of technology. 

And yet, beneath the veneer of simplicity, it’s here, in Kampung La, that Ammar sees his first robot—through the small screen of his phone—and is inexorably drawn to the world of robotics.

At age 13, Ammar left Kampung La to attend a boarding school two and a half hours away from the familiarity of home because of its promising STEM program. Remarkably, the program was led by an English teacher with no formal technical background but with a firm belief in the importance of STEM.

“Despite challenges in securing funding and enduring the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ammar’s school has never failed to participate in the FIRST Global Challenge,” says Ilylia Kamaruzaman, one of three founders of Roboticist, the organization responsible for handpicking the students to compete on FIRST Global’s Team Malaysia.

The FIRST Global Challenge is a robotics competition that invites every nation to send a team to build and program a robot to cooperate with other teams to complete a task. The event attracts the brightest young minds from every corner of the world. This year the FIRST Global Challenge takes place in Singapore, a full day’s drive south of Ammar’s home village. ​

Read the blog post announcing Lam’s $10 million donation to FIRST Global

In 2022 Ammar was selected to be part of the five-member team representing Team Malaysia as their dedicated programmer. Any task the robot performed—from moving its robotic arm to traversing the arena—Ammar had worked his magic on the code.

News of Ammar’s selection to the national team rippled through Kampung La and in an extraordinary display of community support, neighbors banded together to provide the necessary funding for him to travel to Geneva, Switzerland, the host city of the 2022 Challenge, and a trip that marked Ammar’s first time boarding an airplane.

“It was all so overwhelming,” says Ammar. “I cried. I couldn’t believe that I was going to represent my country on the international stage.”

The event brought him into contact with like-minded peers from around the world, including a student from Nigeria, with whom they shared more in common with than just their robots. Ammar found that both cherished meat skewers but made the (unfortunate) discovery that those from Nigeria dwarfed those he was used to in Malaysia.

This year, Ammar was named captain of the eight-member team​ representing Malaysia at the 2023 FIRST Global Challenge. His responsibilities have evolved beyond coding. “I make sure my team is on the right track to achieve our dream—to win the FIRST Global Challenge,” he says.

The game of this year’s Challenge, Hydrogen Horizons​, requires teams to work together to produce, store, transport, and convert hydrogen into other forms of energy. The match begins with robots extracting plastic balls, symbolizing hydrogen and oxygen atoms, from the center of the arena. Robots then sort the balls based on size and proceed to store the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in separate tanks. When the hydrogen tank is filled, robots transport it to align under the oxygen tank, converting its “energy” into a usable form.

Throughout the summer, the team faced several technical challenges in the design of the robot, which required the team to practice twice a day—two hours each time. Fortunately, volunteers like Devaraj Komarailveil, Team Malaysia mentor and manufacturing engineer at Lam Manufacturing Malaysia, who was proud to coach the team representing his home country, provided invaluable guidance.

“I can see Ammar typing,” Devaraj says as he scrolls through Team Malaysia’s WhatsApp channel, the main communication platform the team uses to discuss technical challenges with their mentors. The team was experiencing a small hurdle concerning their robot’s ball collection device which resembles a vertical conveyor belt. “I recall constant messages streaming in from the team with solutions,” says Devaraj. “Ultimately, the fix was to increase the friction and we did so by adding silicon tapes to the design.”

“We built a close bond,” says Devaraj. “Even though the team is based in another state—​more than 500 kilometers away from Lam’s base in Penang—​we’ve been able to collaborate and share ideas to build a competitive robot.”

Ammar is ready to bring his new robot and his new team—which he now calls his second family—​to Singapore for the 2023 FIRST Global Challenge.

For Ammar, his participation in FIRST Global has been transformative. It has provided him with hands-on experience in applied science and technology, an opportunity that appeared limited in his humble village. It's inspired him to pursue a career in a field that, to him, has no apparent demand in Kampung La. It's molded him into a global citizen who can speak English with ease to his peers. It's taught him collaboration, leadership, and discipline.

FIRST Global isn’t about robots. It’s a catalyst to build his future.

“I want to become a computer scientist,” he shares again, “maybe even at Lam Research,” he adds with a smile. 

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