Algorithm’s First Black Queen Blazes Her Own Trail, and Others’

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Rediet Abebe, the first black female to study and earn a PhD in New York’s prestigious Cornell University, in computer science, blazed a trail not just for herself, but for others, too.

Cornell University is a private, statutory Ivy League research university in Ithaca, New York. The university, 155 years old, was founded by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White.

At Cornell, her doctoral program in computer science allowed her to combine her math degrees with her interest in inequality and social impact.

Abebe is currently a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. She boasts of the honour of being one of only two fellows with a computer science Ph.D. in the society’s history. She will join the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science. 

Abebe’s honours include a Cornell Social Justice Award in 2019. She was also featured in “35 Innovators Under 35” in the MIT Technology Review in 2019 and in “Bloomberg 50: Ones to Watch” in 2018.

Abebe co-founded a group, Black in AI, in 2017. That group has ballooned from an email thread among a handful of researchers to a nonprofit organization with more than 2,000 members today. She is also a co-founder of Mechanism Design for Social Good, aimed at using algorithmic tools to improve opportunities for disadvantaged communities. The initiative currently has active members at more than 100 institutions in 20 countries.

Abebe feels accomplished that more black and Latino computer science doctoral students are becoming conscious about algorithms. 

In 2019, 14% of Cornell’s 35 incoming Ph.D. students in computer science were from under-represented backgrounds, and 31% were women. Abebe said she has also seen more awareness and acceptance in the computer science field.  

Designing algorithms for social good was the focus of her dissertation.

At Berkeley, she will be the first black female computer science professor on the faculty of her department.

After receiving a B.Sc. and M.Sc. from Harvard University and a Masters in Advanced Studies in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, Abebe chose Cornell for her doctoral studies largely to work with Jon Kleinberg, whose mathematical approach and research on social networks she admired.

According to Kleinberg, “Abebe’s work and vision have mobilized an entire research community, creating new directions for computing to address societal challenges and increase access to opportunity.” 

Abebe took advantage of Cornell’s interdisciplinary nature to learn more about social science and social disparity. Her mentors include Karen Levy, assistant professor of information science, and Kim Weeden, the Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Inequality.

When she arrived at Cornell in 2015, Abebe was the only black doctoral computer science student on the Ithaca campus. Her connections with other computer scientists around the country led her to co-found Black in AI.

Abebe grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and a city of 10 million people, so she was not sure how she would adapt to Ithaca, but fell in love both with the university and its setting. And today, she is still conquering territories. 

Henry Onoghan

Henry Onoghan

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