It took a bungee-jump dare and an adventurous friend to turn IEEE Member Sinan AlSheikh into a skydiving enthusiast.
Since 2009, he has made three tandem jumps with an instructor toward the six he needs before he can jump solo.
"I'm proof that you can be a geek and still have fun!" says AlSheikh, an IBM IT consultant in Dubai. "I even went skydiving during my lunch hour. I jumped with my suit and tie on, but I didn't tell my coworkers."
He has also received an unexpected benefit. "Once you've had the rush of bungee jumping or skydiving, it's not a big deal to present in front of 300 people," he says.
AlSheikh's skydiving passion began in 2008 when a couple of friends called him in the middle of the night, raving about a bungee jumping event at the Dubai Shopping Festival. "We have to do it!" they exclaimed. The next day, AlSheikh found himself peering over the edge of a 45-meter-high platform at the beach below, an elastic cord strapped around both his ankles, trying to get up his nerve.
"With three friends all pushing each other, you can't say no," he says. "Skydiving is more of an adventure, like sightseeing with a great view—bungee jumping is just scary. My mind was telling my legs to jump, but they weren't listening. When I finally did, I kept looking at the point where I was going to hit the ground, bracing for a bad situation, until the rope broke my fall two meters off the ground and I bounced way up. Then I started screaming.
"Once was enough. I was not going to do that again."
In early 2009, a friend visited from Lebanon so she could go skydiving. "I thought, 'If a girl can do it, why can't I?'" he teases. "It was also my 23rd birthday, and I wanted to do something crazy." His birthday present was his first jump—and he was hooked.
So what does it feel like to jump out of a plane? AlSheikh describes skydiving as more exhilarating than nerve-racking. "You're at a 4-kilometer altitude, free-falling for around 30 seconds before pulling your parachute," he says. "You're doing Superman moves and screaming, but the wind is so loud you can barely hear yourself."
"The first few seconds after you jump, you're still going as fast as the plane and haven't accelerated downward, so you feel no pressure anywhere—like you're floating in a dream," he continues. "Then the acceleration starts, till you reach around 120 kilometers per hour.
"When the instructor pulls the parachute cord, you feel your stomach dislocating. It's like hitting the brakes at a very high speed," he says. "After that, you just relax and enjoy the view." It's a view that pushes AlSheikh out of his comfort zone.
"Now I'll have stories to tell my children, and they'll have to challenge me in how far they push themselves out of their comfort zones," he says. "Maybe one of them will jump from the moon!"
Hometown: URBANA, ILL.
In Perfect Harmony
IEEE Member Michael Loui had never conducted a choir when he took over the reins of his church's children's choir a few years ago. Since then, he has found directing the singers to be more than just a hobby. For Loui, it's a great way to bring harmony to his community, one note at a time.
"Choir singing is an engaging way to teach youngsters how to cooperate to achieve a common goal," he says. "Our planet would be much better if, as children, we learned to make music together."
Music has been a longtime passion of Loui's. An electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he studied piano from sixth grade through high school, took a music theory class in college, and sang in community theater productions in graduate school. At the beginning of his career, the demands of work reduced his musical activities. When his own children learned to play oboe and saxophone, however, he became their piano accompanist. A few years after Loui joined his church in 1996, he answered a call for a children's choir pianist.
He arranged music and played piano for the choir, which is at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign. When the choir's director left in 2002 and no one filled the void, he volunteered despite having no formal background in choral conducting. "If I had not done so, we would not have had a children's choir," he says.
To prepare for the position, he read books on directing choirs. "The biggest challenge is teaching children how to sing on pitch," Loui says. "That's not something I've been trained to do. So we make a joyful noise. We sing in unison and two-part harmony, but sometimes we sing unintentionally in 18-part 'harmony.' There's no real technique other than getting singers to learn their parts and listen to each other as they sing."
Loui plans the year's repertoire during the summer. From September through May, the choir rehearses for 45 minutes each week and performs in the church's Sunday services twice a month. Over the years, the choir has varied from 8 to 18 children, ranging in age from 6 to 12. They sing a variety of music, spanning hymns, spirituals, folk, pop, and Broadway songs—as well as an original Thanksgiving anthem Loui composed called "Thank You, World."
At the end of the day, directing the choir is more than just a creative outlet, he says. "It's also my way of serving my community and making the world a more beautiful place."
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Top: Sinan AlSheikh; Bottom: Betsy Berry