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Timnit gebru

Research Scientist, Google AI 

 

And - Participated in Addis Coder, a 1 month summer class for high school students in Ethiopia

There is no such thing as a Math person vs. not a Math person. That's society telling you there is only one type of person for one field.

What do you do?

I work on computer vision (helping machines understand visual data), its applications to gaining societal insight, studying algorithmic bias, and the ethical implications underlying any data mining project.

Why did you choose this field?

My arrival to this field was very roundabout. I studied electrical engineering because it was clear that I liked math and physics ever since i was a kid. I said I wanted to be a scientist. My dad was an electrical engineer and my two oldest sisters were also electrical engineers so I decided to pursue that degree.

 

As an undergrad I studied analog circuit design, something very different from what I am doing now. I worked at Apple and when I went back to school I got deeper into physics (studying device physics and optics). I felt too isolated as a PhD student, left, co-founded a startup, spent 3 great months at Recurse Centre, traveled, then decided to go back and do a PhD in computer vision. I had started to get interested in this topic right before I left my PhD and while I was working on my startup as well as attending Recurse Centre later. 

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

"[My family] expected me to perform at my very best. "

Honestly younger me was not the problem. Its older me that had gotten beaten down due to racism and sexism and so many similar things I dealt with. When I was little I was told I could do anything and I believed it. If I wasn't among the top in my class no one in my family was impressed! Its after I came to the US at 16 where things started getting very difficult.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I look forward to reading papers, thinking, discussing ideas, writing code. Any time I get to do that I feel like I'm on vacation. 

Best advice for the next generation

Firstly, if you don't do well on a test, or you feel like you don't understand something, don't internalise it. As Rachel Thomas says, there is no such thing as a Math person vs not a Math person. That's society telling you there is only one type of person for one field. The way we are taught they messages we are given, they are so problematic. If you don't understand something, try to figure out many different angles before you give up. Who can you ask to help explain a concept, or present things in a different way? If you did badly on a test it doesn't mean this field is not for you. It just means you did badly on this particular test. 

Second, find your network of other women and allies who will support you. I think it's impossible to survive in STEM as a woman (especially as a Black woman) without this network. The field is setup to push you out and you constantly feel that force. Amplify your voice, this is very important.

Role model 

I tend to admire many different people for many different things. I always give my mother as an example for her ability to problem solve and how ahead of her time she was in terms of gender issues for her generation (and where she grew up). She came to the US at the age of 55 and completely changed her career, got new training and changed profession. After my father died, she raised 3 girls (I was 5 years old) as a single woman. She has seen and survived a lot. Last year I saw an 80 year old Black woman singing with her jazz band in Harlem enjoying her life and seeming like she does not care what the world thinks of her. I admire people like her.