Joy Buolamwini wins national contest for her work fighting bias in machine learning
3rd Year PhD Student
My undergraduate degree was in Chemistry: Pre-Med and I graduated from Norfolk State University. When I was younger I wanted to be a masseuse; but not just any masseuse. I wanted to give massages to the stars! After my masseuse phase, I wanted to be a physical therapist like my aunt but then realized I wanted to be a doctor or possibly an OB-GYN. Ironically I would become a doctor—but one with a PhD.
How was your experience with STEM classes and teachers in middle and high school?
In middle school and high school I had many positive experiences with STEM classes. My teachers were passionate about the subjects they taught and their enthusiasm incited my curiosity and interest. I knew I was definitely going to be in the STEM field when I was a senior in high school. I took AP Chemistry and AP Calculus ABC. Although it was the hardest year of my life, I learned so much from my teachers. As a result, I became a Chemistry Pre-Med major in college because I did so well in General Chemistry.
After grad school, what’s next?
That is a good question. I am currently focusing on my research and graduating. There are so many paths I can take after graduation like: academia, industry, consulting, start-up, venture capitalism and the list goes on. I have about three more years to decide what’s next as far as a STEM career, but I do know that I would love to have my own business that combines my two loves: fashion and fitness.
What do you do to unwind?
I love to workout (I am a health fanatic) and I have been a vegetarian for the past eight years. I’m even considering a side gig as a personal trainer. I also like 3D printing, DIY projects, hiking, watching reality TV and eating really good food.
My Grad School Experience
My motivation to pursue such an advanced degree manifested when I was accepted into Dozoretz National Institute for Mathematics and Applied Sciences (DNIMAS). DNIMAS is a full-ride scholarship program at Norfolk State University that addresses the severe shortage of minority scientists by producing graduates who are more than capable of successfully completing graduate studies in the basic and applied sciences. Out of all the colleges and universities I applied to, none of them offered this advanced opportunity to minorities. Through this program, I met other minority students at Norfolk State and other degree granting institutions, with advanced degrees and excellent careers. These men and women opened my eyes to the incredible opportunities that could be afforded to me if I pursued a PhD. So I did just that.
I was finally, officially convinced when I started working for CryoLife Inc., one of the world’s contemporary biomedical companies in Atlanta, Georgia. I worked as a Medical Device Associate assembling the HeRO® Graft (Hemodialysis Reliable Outflow); the only fully subcutaneous AV access solution clinically proven to maintain long-term access for hemodialysis patients with central venous stenosis. The key benefits of the device were a reduced infection rate and cost savings when compared to catheters. My job was building the device from scratch but I wanted to test theories, brainstorm new ideas and perfect the engineering. Only grad school could provide me with this opportunity to do more than just manufacturing.
I felt the most discouraged during my first year as a graduate student. I entered into a cohort where I was one of the oldest and had not been enrolled in school for nearly two years. Unlike many of my peers, I did not come straight from undergrad. I came from the workforce knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I also felt slightly disadvantaged, at first, because I came from an HBCU that did not have opportunities to do research during the semester. I had a few summer experiences but nothing consistent that lasted through a whole semester or year. I also encountered something called “micro-aggressions” that made me battle with and doubt myself. I did not want to fit that stereotype of the “angry black woman” but I wanted people to know that I would not tolerate passive aggressive behavior.
I overcame these obstacles by first knowing and believing that I was indeed meant to be there! Despite the fact that I was older and returning to school from time in the workforce, I was the only one in my class awarded with two fellowships and full funding for the next six years of my graduate program. Even though I only had a few summer experiences and they all differed from each other, I gained firsthand experience in different types of research and the art of networking. Heck, two of the people I worked with during those summers wrote recommendation letters for me to get into graduate school. In regard to the “micro-aggressions,” I learned to address them head on and to not let the passive aggressive nature of some people confuse who I am. I am straightforward, I tell everyone about my background and I feel no shame in that. I learned that although people may be well off and come from big name schools, it’s really about networking, your work ethic and how dedicated you are to your research.
Some of my biggest cheerleaders are my fiancé, family, friends, and advisors. All these people keep me going and encourage me to finish. I also have to say that the women that I have encountered in grad school that are also pursuing PhDs have been a wonderful support system as well. Our shared, similar experiences allow us to be there for each other during the hard times; offering advice, tips, suggestions and libations. Without someone knowing exactly what I go through, I do not know how far I would have gotten.
What do you want to say to up and coming Melanin Genius?
To up and coming melanin geniuses, never think of yourself as an imposter; but rather a dope chic that loves STEM.
What has been the most useful life advice you have received?
The most useful life advice I have received is from my General Chemistry professor, Dr. Katina Hall. She would always tell the class, “Even when I’m wrong, I’m right.” At first, I was thrown off by this phrase and totally disagreed. I later realized that you have to say things and believe in what you say with such confidence that no one would even think to question you. I think that rings true when pursuing a PhD in a field that I will ultimately become an expert in. I have to have confidence in what I am saying even if I do not always have the right answer.
Meet other trailbalzers
Darian James – uses computer vision to differentiate between diseased and non diseased SHG microscopy images.
2nd Year PhD Student Biomedical Engineering University of Wisconsin - Madison
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