How I became an expert in both human and machine intelligence.

This post originally appeared on www.omojumiller.com

Omoju 2014 White House Tree Lighting Ceremony

It started in 1994, Fadeyi, Lagos. My high school introduced a mandatory computer science (CS) class taught by Mr Onyeka. He often wore a white buba and sokoto and had a bad case of razor bumps on the back of his neck. It was rather distracting learning his material because those razor bumps were all I could focus on.

If someone had told me that I would at one point be a software engineer, a computer scientist and now data scientist, I would have laughed them off. I hated CS class because it focused mainly on things like ALU (Arithmetic and Logic Unit), registers and so on; the logical components that made up the computer itself. My Onyeka didn’t make it anymore fun either, since we hardly ever got to actually see, let alone touch a computer.

To put things in perspective, the first web page went live in 1991. By 1994, there were fewer than 3000 websites around, today there are well over billion. Even by 1994, the web was still mostly for hardcore hobbyist.

By 1996, I found myself in Memphis, TN. Growing up, I spent most of my summers in London, so living abroad wasn’t so novel. However, I had never visited the American South. That summer, in addition to visiting London, my family and I planned to visit NYC for my cousins wedding. That summer trip was the beginning of my life in the states. I literally ended up staying in this country by complete happenstance.

My uncles had persuaded my father to allows us to stay in the US because the universities in Nigeria where once again on strike. My sister and I entered the country on a visitor’s visa, which meant that we had to get accepted into an American university in less than a few months and transition our status to F1 before we our visa ran out. In 3 weeks, my sister and I studied and passed our ACT exams. Think about how badass that is? To be told:

you have to take this extremely high-stakes exam, get a strong score and oh, by the way, you have 21 days to do it.

You will be amazed what you can do, when you are forced to do it. We did exactly just that and gained acceptance to LeMoyne Owen college, an HBCU in Memphis. I started at LeMoyne Owen college January 1997. My first semester there, I took a class titled “Management Information System.”

I took that class, discovered the internet and my life changed forever.

It was game over, I had found what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a computer scientist. I wanted to know everything about what made this thing possible. By that fall, I transferred to the University of Memphis and became a CS major.

University of Memphis

Looking back on my undergraduate career, I had a great time. My classes were tough but intellectually stimulating. That was all I needed. I got As and Bs in all my CS classes, except for darn Assembly language. While I was perhaps the only Black girl in my year, and for the most part, probably one of three in the major, I wasn’t actually aware of it. Even though I clearly was Black, my identity was solidly African, as a result I honestly did not process race the same way my American classmates did. It has taken me over 10 years to see the world as Americans do.

Computational System

Towards the end of my junior year, I was talking with my computer graphics professor, Edward Ordman, who mentioned that his friend had just started a company and was looking for software engineers. I reached out and was hired as an intern, the company was called Thoughtware Learning Technologies, Inc. That internship would later become a full-time position.

The company was an education training company that had be founded to commercialize some of the A.I. research that was been done on campus. unbeknownst to me, the University of Memphis housed the Institute of Intelligence Systems, with highly accomplished researchers like Stan Franklin, Art Graesser, Daniel McNamara and others. While I was taking classes from these guys as an undergraduate, they were busy putting their mark on cognitive systems.

It was at Thoughtware that I first truly caught the bug for the application of A.I. I was busy building these online courses for fortune 500 companies with little bits of A.I. built into it, to give the end user a better experience of testing their knowledge. The company got funded from the valley, we rode the wave of the first dot com bubble. The bubble busted, I saw the writing on the wall and headed back to University of Memphis to further my knowledge of A.I.

I became a student of Dr David Russomanno, this time in the engineering department, where I started pursuing a masters in intelligent systems. I had been deeply fascinated by what where then called “expert systems” which are better know today by the name “cognitive computing.” The most famous of these systems is IBM’s Watson, the jeopardy winner. With Dr Russomanno, we focused on the semantic web.

Me, my colleague Echo Azar and another colleague of ours in our lab at Memphis. Yeah we were NERDs. 2006

The work that I personally focused on dealt with sensor knowledge modeling techniques using RDF and OWL. We developed an ontology named OntoSensor. When I saw Dr Russomanno last October, he told me that one of our papers is still the most cited paper in its area. Under Dr Russomanno’s guidance, I published my first scholarly paper as first author, and got some other publications out. It was around that time that I started hatching some of the idea for Hiphopathy.

Jay Z’s 03 Bonnie & Clyde had just come out, and I would listen to it a lot, driving in to the Center for Advanced Sensors. By virtue of doing knowledge modeling on sensors, I wondered if one could do something similar on another domain, in particular hiphop. I shelved that idea away at the back of mind.

Stay at Home Mom

our years into my program at Memphis, I became restless and dissatisfied with the research direction. I had been making very good progress, publishing and mentoring students. However, I felt there was something more. Around this same time I started really noticing that I was the only person who looked like me most places I went to present my work. Luckily for me, Dr Russomanno had interest in STEM education, and by this point had become the chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. Because of his position and interest, I got to participate in several education related projects.

I hosted some aspects of the Science Olympiad, I held talks for local high school students at our lab, I spoke at girls engineering summer programs and so on. The same time, I found out I was expecting my child. Perhaps it was the realization that I was becoming a mother, or the fact that my research didn’t have my personal voice in it, or the silent voice in my head that kept telling me I needed a bigger stage, I decided to take some time off, and devote a few years to parenting my child.

Omoju and her son Roju, 2008

Two years, turned into three, life happened and I found myself facing the dissolution of my marriage. There is nothing like a divorce, and the identity crisis that comes with it, that forces you to re-evaluate your life and who you are. I decided that if life was going to serve me lemons, then not only would I make lemonade, I was going to re-invent the lemonade market and take it global. I decided I was finally going to listen to my intuition, the small voice in my head, and go on to pursue a PhD in Computer Science Education, even though I didn’t know if such a thing existed. This was in 2009, edtech wasn’t a thing.

The voice had been telling me to ask bigger questions like “why was I the only one I often saw in CS?,” “If you are going to do hiphopathy, and believe that African Americans ability to code-switch effortlessly could give you deeper insights into conceptual metaphors, shouldn’t you go get some African Americans into the field?” and so on.

I told my dear advisor, who looked at me like I had sprouted three heads. He was deeply concerned that I was making a decision against my own self interest, when all I had left to do was take the qualifying exam and submit a dissertation and be done with the intelligent systems PhD. He didn’t see the need to start all over again, in a field, that didn’t really exist. I was stubborn as they come, told him I had made up my mind and was only interest in attending the top six programs in the nation. I made up my mind, I signed up to re-take the GRE, passed and moved on. I started the process in August, by December I was admitted to Berkeley.

I googled “computer science education”, I googled “cognitive science” and SESAME program at Berkeley came up. I saw Alice Agogino’s name, read her bio and decided that was the woman I wanted to learn with. I sent her an email, 15 minutes later she replied, I set up an appointment and two weeks later I was sitting in her office.

The process of applying to grad school was when it started to dawn on me that I may perhaps be “smart.” I know, it sounds crazy. At this time I had around 3 or 4 peer reviewed papers, I thought that everybody had that. I didn’t think it was special for a Master’s student to have published. However, when all the schools started emailing and calling me ad nauseam was when I started thinking, hey, there might be something here. I applied to six schools: UC Berkeley, Cornell, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, University of Texas Austin, Vanderbilt, and Tufts. I got into all except UIUC, I chose Berkeley because it was a global leader, a public institution, it was in California, and most importantly, it was close to Sky Walker Ranch — because Star Wars. I had started a Stanford application but refused to finish it once I had visited Berkeley. I knew I would never chose Stanford even if I was offered admission.

Cal Berkeley

When I got here, I was just in awe! All those nobel laureates, whoa. And one of them Dan Kammen’s office was just a few doors down from Alice. Oh My God!!!

Berkeley is the place where the “secret” dreams that I dreamt started coming true. For the first time in my professional life, I was part of a team that was led by a woman — Alice Agogino. For the first time, I also got to work with another black person professionally — Ryan Shelby. I got to intern in a company founded by a black man — Gene Wade, UNow. There were many great first. I got to go to the White House — 4 separate times, I got to host my own TEDx conference. I became a thought leader in my field. I was encouraged to inject my voice in my research — I am forever grateful to Bernard Gifford who scolded and moulded my research trajectory.

Through my work in inclusion, I was invited to join roundtables that the White House was holding around diversifying its applicant pool for the presidential innovation fellows. I would later serve as a volunteer advisor to that program. This put me on the national stage. Because of that I got invited to attend a White House hackathon on data and education. My team won, and I went back to the White House to present our winning idea, #ThisIsGrit. Eventually all this work got me on the radar of Google, and I went to serve there as a CSEd subject matter expert for Google.org.

Omoju at the White House after presenting #ThisIsGrit. 2013

After Google, I came back to campus to finish writing my dissertation, which I submitted this December. This May, I will be participating in commencement with the greatest gratitude.

Gratitude

Sometimes it takes you a while to truly understand how blessed you are. I used to complain a lot about attending University of Memphis for my undergrad and masters. I thought I belonged in a “better institution”. Looking back it pains me to have ever held this belief. Perhaps its attending what is commonly referred to as an “elite” institution that has finally opened my eyes to how truly great the faculty I was privy to be around at University of Memphis were.

Omoju reuniting with Gwenn Volkert at SIGCSE 2014, after 15 years.

Of course, I always had my faves, Dr Nasraoui, Dr Volkert and of course my Master’s advisor Dr Russomanno. Now that I have finally finished my Phd, and delving deeper into the world of knowledge extraction through data science, I wish I could go back in time and sit in those classes again.

I am writing this essay to say thank you. Thank you to the University of Memphis, for its excellent Computer Science, Psychology, and Engineering departments. The ideas I was exposed to then, help shape the kind of work I do now. Even though I didn’t know it, I realize for the last 15+ years,

I have been building competency in one single thing, namely, how computational systems learn, whether they be machine, or human.

I came to Berkeley at a time in my life when I was looking for hope. Berkeley gave that to me. My time at Berkeley exposed me to people who were crafting fields, serving in presidential administrations, folks that dared to believe in inventing the future. In time I came to see my reflection in them. It was at Berkeley where I put the pieces of my life back together and discovered that I too could dare to dream, that I too could invent our future.

A picture of Omoju posted on the BEST lab site after winning an Open Innovator Award and becoming a Sage Scholar. 2015

Thank you to all my mentees over the years—Caleb Goodwin, Alex Greenspan, Samir Makhani, Shola Oyedele, Akhila Raju— for allowing me to help you get on the road to your dreams. Thank you to my Berkeley family, Alice Agogino, Dan Garcia, Bernard Gifford, and Sheila Humphreys. Each of you are the reason why I will be a Berkeley alumni. Thank you to Mitch and Freada Kapor for their unwavering support of my dreams since I met them four years ago at a meeting of Berkeley Science Network. To my BGESS family, Dr Bills, Dr Wade, Dr Shelby, Dr Chavis, Dr Moody we did it! Lets go forward to invent the future!

Dr. Omoju Miller is a Data Scientist with over a decade of experience in computational intelligence. While finishing her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, she co-led the non-profit investment in Computer Science Education for Google. During her time in grad school, apart from conducting her research, she founded TEDxEuclidAve and advised the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows. She is one of the folks to watch, as part of Bloomberg’s Beta Future Founders program.

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