Meet the first black woman to earn a Computer Science Ph.D. from Cornell University

December 13, 2019 at 11:30 am | Success Story, Women

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

December 13, 2019 at 11:30 am | Success Story, Women

Pic Credit: Cornell University

Rediet Abebe, a computer scientist has broken the glass ceiling to emerge as the first Black woman to earn a computer science Ph.D. from Cornell University.

The 28-year-old, who is a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows “designs and analyze algorithmic, discrete optimizations, network-based, and computational techniques to improve access to opportunity for historically disadvantaged communities.”

Much of her research centers on using algorithms and artificial intelligence with a focus on equity and social good.

Born and raised in Addis Ababa and a graduate of the Ethiopian National Curriculum, Abebe said she is passionate about increasing the representation and inclusion of marginalized communities in computing.

Abebe is already giving back to society. “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,” she said in her bio.

Rediet Abebe presented "Designing Algorithms for Social Good” last week.
Rediet Abebe presenting “Designing Algorithms for Social Good” – Pic Credit: Rediet Abebe

She uses artificial intelligence techniques in order to improve societal welfare such as addressing income shocks, low-income people face such as missed paychecks.

Her research adopts a welfare model that uses information about families to find intervention methods and mitigate the effects of income shocks.

Her passion for social problems can be traced back to her upbringing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There, she said 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.

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

She moved to the United States to study at Harvard University where she graduated with a degree in mathematics in 2013. She also studied at the University of Cambridge for one year and earned a Master of Advanced Studies in Mathematics degree.

But Abebe’s academic trajectory soon evolved and focused on the world of algorithms and applied mathematics to address social issues while writing for The Harvard Crimson student newspaper as an undergraduate student.

Reportedly, 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 said funding issues, achievement gap problems and general problems that plagued the city created a dilemma for her, as she was confronted with social issues she was interested in studying.

“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.

Abebe is the fifth computer scientist to be selected in the program’s history, which was founded in 1933 and she is looking forward to becoming a professor at a research institution.

In a bid to improve the diversity of computer science discipline, Abebe founded Black in AI, an organization that focuses on black people within the artificial intelligence field in 2017.

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