Alongside her interest in tech, she’s a passionate activist who cares about issues including mass incarceration, prison reform, and diversity in STEM. She’s hopeful about using AI and computer science as effective tools to solve real-world problems.
We interviewed Rebekah as part of AI4ALL’s Role Models in AI series, where we feature the perspectives of people in all stages of their professional and academic careers who work with AI in a variety of ways. Check back here weekly for new interviews.
As told to Nicole Halmi of AI4ALL by Rebekah Agwunobi; edited by Panchami Bhat
NH: How did you get interested in artificial intelligence and computer science in the first place?
I was interested in AI applications in middle school, but I didn’t know where to start. It felt like there was a barrier stopping me from accessing it because there were no classes I could take about it at my school, and I thought it was too complicated to understand on my own.
Then, I applied to Stanford AI4ALL. It was a uniquely empowering experience, not only because it encouraged diversity in STEM, but also because of the interdisciplinary idea that you can apply AI in a humanitarian way.
AI4ALL helped me become further engaged in computer science in a different way by combining many of my passions, like social justice and advocacy.
What drove you to create a machine learning directed study at your high school? What are you working on in that course?
I finished AP Computer Science in 8th grade, and having completed all of the computer science classes that were offered at my high school, I didn’t have a lot of other options.
I wanted something built into my course schedule that I found empowering and allowed me to explore things I was interested in. That’s why last term I did a machine learning directed study. In the class, we talked about some of the general techniques I learned at Stanford AI4ALL, and we also talked about some more advanced concepts. We did Kaggle competitions, and I learned a lot about different applications of machine learning in areas like art generation and music. I learned a lot of theory behind the math I was doing.
You joined the organizing board for Massachusetts Hacks (MAHacks) in order to improve diversity and outreach in STEM. What has that been like?
I went to MAHacks for the first time this year. One of the things I love about MAHacks is that it takes an entrepreneurial approach to hacking — something I hadn’t seen in high school hackathons before. They have different tracks — for example medical or business tracks — and offer hackathon winners the opportunity to get continued support to work on your project in the long term.
I’m helping plan the next MAHacks that’s going to happen in the fall. I’m primarily working on improving outreach and working with sponsors. One of the biggest things I noticed when I attended MAHacks was the lack of diversity, particularly underrepresented minority women.
I believe it’s crucial to not only give Black and Latinx people the resources and opportunities to learn how to code, but to also actively support them in environments like hackathons.
You interned for 2 summers in USC’s Department of Computer Science doing research in big data, mobile development, and geospatial crowdsourcing. Can you describe your research there? What were your big takeaways?
The first time I interned at USC, I was twelve. I had never really experienced any sort of research environment, so I learned a lot and had to be very resilient. I was working with Dr. Cyrus Shahabi on crowdsourcing incentive and reverse auction pricing schemes. The second summer I interned there, I supported a grad student in writing a research paper.
The grad students wanted to support me, the professors were all helpful in giving me ideas for applications of machine learning and other things I was interested in like big data. Having this positive, engaging research experience at such a young age really made me want to pursue a PhD in computer science.
As a young woman of color I was in an environment where everyone was willing to treat me like an equal, and they all cared about my thoughts and my contributions.
Who were your role models growing up? Do you have any role models now?
My role model growing up was always Grace Hopper, because I think she’s a good representation of the female experience in STEM. I find the contributions she’s made absolutely inspiring and wonderful. Another role model growing up was Angela Davis, especially in social advocacy. I actually got to meet her when she spoke at the University of Hartford, which was very exciting.
Acknowledging how much my parents have done for me, I would say that they are my greatest role models right now. My mom has provided me with so many educational opportunities, and she’s been invested in me from the start. She empowers me, and my dad is my biggest fan.
You’ve said elsewhere that you plan to major in computer science and minor in political science or international relations. Why are you interested in combining these disciplines?
Seeing the humanitarian applications in AI at Stanford AI4ALL, I realized that I didn’t have to sacrifice fundamental aspects of my identity to pursue computer science. I love computer science and I see it as a tool to utilize in art, music, and political advocacy. STEM can be really powerful when applied to other fields.
In the beginning of my freshman year, I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and it really got me thinking about the [social] systems we have in place. A lot of the activists that I look up to talk about prison reform and rehabilitation not only in the context of social justice but also from an interdisciplinary perspective. I believe that machine learning is one way to effectively target mass incarceration. Machine learning can have humanitarian applications on pretrial datasets, which is not only very interesting but is a perfect example of how tech can impact real-world problems in ways that genuinely affect people’s lives.
What do you hope to do after your studies?
Whether I work in industry or pursue further academic research, I want to apply computer science to solve social issues. I hope that more of the work that I do in tech revolves around prison reform, and grassroots activism. I really want to impact the world whether it’s through climate change advocacy, mass incarceration, or helping women and people of color and LGBTQ+ people achieve their STEM ambitions. Diversity in STEM is important and part of why I want to combine political science, international relations, and women’s studies with a computer science major.
What advice do you have for other young people who are interested in AI?
Find applications that you’re really interested in. If you pursue projects that you’re interested in, or relate AI to another field that you’re interested in, you’ll want to learn more and you’ll gain the knowledge to actually implement things.
Computer science consistently has this conversation around it that’s about how learning to code is difficult, and how you have to take years of courses to learn a concept. Just because I did AI in school doesn’t mean that I didn’t do a lot of research on my own. Don’t be afraid to take the initiative to start learning. Free online courses are really helpful. Look to other people, whether they’re your friends or mentors to help teach you.
Rebekah Agwunobi is a 15-year-old rising senior at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, CT. She is an NCWIT 2018 National Award Winner, Caroline D. Bradley Scholar, and Stanford AI4ALL alumna. She is unbelievably passionate about applying STEM to solve issues ranging from women’s healthcare access to disaster relief. In her free time she enjoys playing guitar, singing, wakeboarding, skiing, and musical theatre. In addition, she teaches all-girl coding classes and is invested in making STEM accessible to underrepresented minorities and women. She is an organizer for MAHacks, co-president of Choate Diversity Student Association, co-president of Choate Programming Union, as well as Senior Editor for three publications. After high school, she hopes to pursue research to solve complex humanitarian issues with creative CS solutions.
Follow along with AI4ALL’s Role Models in AI series on Twitter and Facebook at #rolemodelsinAI. We’ll be publishing a new interview with an AI expert every week this winter. The experts we feature are working in AI in a variety of roles and have taken a variety of paths to get there. They bring to life the importance of including a diversity of voices in the development and use of AI.