Courtesy of Rediet Abebe

Rediet Abebe presented "Designing Algorithms for Social Good” last week.

November 17, 2019

In December, Rediet Abebe Will Become the First Black Woman to Receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Cornell

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Last Monday at 11 a.m., Rediet Abebe grad presented her thesis to a room full of supporters representing disciplines and educational levels from across the university. In December, she will become the first black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in computer science from Cornell.

Her presentation, entitled “Designing Algorithms for Social Good” was her B exam, the final requirement towards her Ph.D. Jehron Petty ’20, co-president of Underrepresented Minorities in Computing, organized for students to attend the thesis presentation in support, some of whom had no connection to the computing world. Other groups rallied around her as well, including the Black Graduate & Professional Students Association.

“It was a very diverse audience and it was very meaningful to me, actually, to have them there,” Abebe told The Sun.

Abebe said her research focuses on using artificial intelligence techniques in order to improve societal welfare. One example is addressing income shocks low-income people face such as missed paychecks. Her research involves a welfare model that uses information about families to find intervention methods and mitigate the effects of the income shocks.

She said that her interest in social problems roots back to her upbringing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 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.

“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, 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 said.

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, she said.

She 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.

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,” Bindel said. “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,” Abebe said.

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 said.