Data Science PhD Student Receives Prestigious Fellowship
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in in her home country of Nigeria, Oluseun Olulana eventually zeroed in on WPI when deciding where she would pursue her doctorate in data science with a focus on fairness in artificial intelligence. Biases about age, gender, and race can make their way into AI learning models; she said she is evaluating the models used in AI and machine learning to find ways to identify and avoid those pitfalls.
The university’s model of blending theory and practice appealed to her, and she wanted to do research while working and gaining valuable experience. The PhD student brought with her a sense of advocacy for women and girls in science. In Nigeria, there are still strong notions about what women can and cannot do in society, Olulana said. She believes being able to pursue her doctorate at WPI could show women and girls that there are viable careers for women in traditionally male-dominated fields.
“I wanted to add value in a practical way,” Olulana said.
In recognition of the importance of her work and her goals, Olulana recently received the American Association of University Women’s 2022–2023 International Doctoral Degree Fellowship. She was one of 320 individuals or organizations receiving a total of $6 million in grants or fellowships. The funding will enable her and the other recipients to pursue academic work and lead innovative community projects to empower women and girls.
“We’re proud to support the work of these outstanding scholars and community leaders,” said Gloria L. Blackwell, AAUW’s chief executive officer, in a press release announcing the awards. “These exceptional awardees are dedicated to making contributions in a wide range of fields. We’re impressed by their work and can’t wait to see the great things they’ll accomplish throughout their research and careers."
Elke Rundensteiner, head of the WPI’s Data Science program and The William Smith Dean's Professor in Computer Science, said she was tremendously proud of Olulana. She said the AAUW award is a prestigious fellowship that will help finance Olulana’s first-year PhD studies.
Rundensteiner said Olulana joined her NSF-funded research project focused on fairness and AI, in collaboration with co-principal investigator Lane Harrison and PhD students Kathleen Cachel and Hilson Shrestha. She said the development of solutions for tackling fairness in AI is increasingly important for our society, given the profound impact of AI-based tools on automated decision-making in society from loan applications to hiring processes.
She added that having bright young women enrolled in the Data Science program at WPI is a great win not only for the students being trained, but for the greater community. Rundensteiner said working with others with diverse perspectives helps all students learn and grow into well-rounded professionals, while assuring cutting-edge technologies are informed by diverse people who are reflective of our society.
“Better yet, it is also of great importance for the field of computing and data sciences in general, as we are in desperate need of qualified women in STEM ready to take on leadership positions in this vital field,” said Rundensteiner.
Arriving at WPI in January to start her PhD work, Olulana said she quickly felt welcomed and supported. She said she has found navigating a new campus—and a new country—easier than she expected. Her advocacy in Nigeria, which included work with United Nations-sponsored programs, will continue to inform her journey at WPI, she said.
“I’m still doing what I always wanted to do," Olulana said, "for girls, for women, for equality.”