Scientist Rediet Abebe’s fascinating journey into History!

17 Dec

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

Computer Scientist Rediet Abebe (photo from her online bio)

TEO leaves the introduction to Rediet herself to tell Ethiopians who she is and her achievements to date. By all measures, Rediet is a successful Ethiopian, who has traversed huge distances in every respect and at a prime age of 28. It would be better if she begins to tell the world about her journey into History and what she has achieved, before TEO goes into pulling information to show who this remarkable person is.

The next two paragraphs are directly taken from her online biodata:

I am a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. I completed my Ph.D. in Computer Science at Cornell University, where I was advised by Jon Kleinberg.

I also have an M.S. in computer science from Cornell University, an M.S. in applied mathematics from Harvard SEAS, an M.A. in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, and a B.A. in mathematics from Harvard University.



Research Interests

Rediet Abebe’s work broadly falls, as she put it, in the fields of AI [Artificial Intelligence] and algorithms, with a focus on equity and social good concerns. Specifically, she designs and analyzes algorithmic, discrete optimization, network-based, and computational techniques to improve access to opportunity for historically disadvantaged communities. As part of this research mission, she co-founded and co-organize Mechanism Design for Social Good (MD4SG), an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research initiative and workshop series.

Her research is informed by collaborations with researchers in related disciplines and domain experts from various government and non-government organizations. Throughout 2019, she has been serving on the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director Working Group on AI.

Rediet Abebe was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — she nostalgically recalls — a home she shares with Lucya more sensible time convention, a country with its own alphabet, the birthplace of coffee, and 13 months of sunshine.

She takes deep breath and says, “I am a proud graduate of the Ethiopian National Curriculum. I am passionate about increasing representation and inclusion of marginalized communities in computing. I co-founded and serve on the Board of Directors for Black in AI, a non-profit organization working to improve diversity in the field of AI.”



The Atlanta Black Star on December 12, 2019 titled its piece: Meet Rediet Abebe, the First Black Woman to Earn a Computer Science Ph.D. From CornTh oell University. It was the first paper TEO read about Rediet’s set journey into History.

Already in the title of the article by Tanasia Kenney, the Black Star employed powerful words to describe who she is and her achievements in just 28 years. Those words speak to billions of people, all the same uplifting as many hearts and minds. 

The paper’s opening paragraph must have taken lots of contemplation. As soon the writer put her pen on paper for the opening paragraph, she saw the computer scientist as someone already shaking the tech world, as follows:

“As one of just few faces of color in the tech world, computer scientist Rediet Abebe is shaking things up and will make history as the first Black woman to earn a computer science Ph.D. from Cornell University later this month.”

The paper then echoes The Cornell Daily Sun, which reported about the young scientist presenting her final thesis entitled “Designing Algorithms for Social Good,” to a roomful of students and supporters. In it, she offered examples of how her research works to improve societal welfare, addressing issues such as income shocks faced by poorer families due to a layoff or missed paycheck.

She said that her interest in social problems roots back to her upbringing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, according to The Cornell Daily Sun. There, she recognized the income inequality and social issues that face her home country, noting that the “big mansions and plastic homes” are on the same block.

The campus paper quotes stating: “Addis Ababa is a very beautiful city,” Abebe said. “It’s something that’s really shaped my identity as a person, as a researcher.”

This awareness was something she kept with her throughout her academic career, and after she moved to the United States to study at Harvard University, from which she graduated with a degree in mathematics in 2013.

After studying at the University of Cambridge for one year, where she received a Master of Advanced Studies in Mathematics degree,The Cornell Daily Sun further writes, Abebe’s academic trajectory changed directions — to focus on the world of algorithms and applied mathematics and to address social issues.

“Abebe’s passion for social policy issues was piqued while writing for The Harvard Crimson student newspaper as an undergraduate student. Abebe covered Cambridge City Council and Cambridge Public School meetings and heard about the issues most deeply affecting residents, and the inequality that surrounded them”, she notes.

Learning about funding issues, achievement gap problems and general problems that plagued the city created a dilemma for Abebe, as she was confronted with social issues she was interested in studying, writes the daily.

According to The Cornell Sun he described her year at the University of Cambridge as a time to freely explore her academic interests. It was during that time she realized she did not have to explicitly choose between those two career paths.

“I realized that actually, if you do computer science or applied mathematics and ultimately other fields, you can work on these really interesting challenging mathematical questions you can do a lot of data-driven work, you can play with data, but you can also think about problems that affect society immediately,” Abebe said.

Once she returned to the United States, she obtained her M.S. in Applied Mathematics from Harvard in 2015, and applied to a range of Ph.D. programs. She said her decision to choose Cornell was due in part to her advisor Prof. Jon Kleinberg, computer science, and the relationship between their areas of research, which she described as “spiritually similar.”

“His way of thinking about the world was something that resonated with me as well; that you can do exciting math and computing problems that are inspired by social processes,” Abebe said about Kleiberg.

Kleinberg is also the interim Dean of the CIS department, following Dean Greg Morrisett’s move to Cornell Tech.

Abebe was recently selected a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, a three-year fellowship program offered to a handful of people annually who are in the early stages of their career. She is the fifth computer scientist to be selected in the program’s history, which was founded in 1933. Abebe said she plans to be a professor at a research institution.

Abebe has done more than learn in the classroom — she has also worked to improve the diversity of the computer science discipline as a whole. In 2017, Abebe founded Black in AI, an organization that focuses on black people within the artificial intelligence field, according to the Sun.

Cornell’s Department of Computer Science was founded in 1965, as one of the first C.S. departments in the country. In the past few years, the department has been working to increase its diversity.

For the 2018 entering class, it was able to see gains in the number of underrepresented minorities and women admitted to the Ph.D. program. That year’s chair of the admissions committee, Prof. David Bindel, wrote a report on the methods he used to increase the diversity. He will return as chair this year.

Bindel told The Sun that part of the issue rested in the lack of diversity in the applicant pool. This led to Bindel reach out to organizations such as Black in AI and other programs to increase the pool’s diversity — which ultimately can increase the variety of research questions being asked.

“We need some of these different perspectives. We need different questions,” The Sun quotes Bindel. “Not just the questions that people who have already largely come through the system that’s established would naturally ask but questions that people coming from outside of the system as established would naturally ask.”

Abebe recognized the lack of diversity in Cornell’s Ph.D. program when she arrived, but said it was also part of a national issue, as only a few black women graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science annually.

“I think the reality is that a lot of institutions just don’t prioritize diversity as much as they should. They prioritize it a lot, but not enough,” The Sun quotes Abebe,

Currently, the graduate department is working to better support the experience of students once they arrive at Cornell, including revamping a past lunch series. Topics to address include the “hidden curriculum” or things students are assumed to have learned prior to coming to Cornell that may not have been taught at their previous institution, Bindel said.

Additionally, Prof. Eva Tardos, computer science, was recently named to the new position of CIS Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. At the undergraduate level at Cornell, diversity has been increasing as well. Women comprise 42% of CS majors and underrepresented minorities make up 14%, according to University media relations coordinator Abby Butler.

Although increasing numbers is a goal, Abebe said it is important to create an inclusive environment. She said it is not a victory to increase numbers since diversity issues are systemic. After admitting a diverse class, there is still work to be done on behalf of departments.

“What are you doing to protect them? What are you doing to protect their time? What are you doing to support them and the specific needs that they might have?” Abebe told The Sun.


Computer scientist Rediet Abebe spoke about the promising role of artificial intelligence in the near future and its ability to create justice. Photo: Melissa W. Kwan

Last October, two Researchers Discussed Technology and Social Justice at Harvard Law School, one of the discussants Rediet Abebe, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Her contention was “A lot of the data is very hard to come by…It’s not collected in a sort of systematic manner, it’s not comprehensive, you cannot regularly sort of rely on it.”

“And what this does is it basically makes it very challenging to identify sort of gaps in our policies in terms of existing communities and also where there might be interest that we haven’t thought about,” she added.




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