By Glenn Billman, deputy campus news editor
More than three dozen students gathered in West Village F Monday to learn about education nonprofit Gique founder Danielle Olson’s path to computer science and participate in a discussion on the power of artificial intelligence and computer science to promote social change.
Olson, a second-year electrical engineering and computer science doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she first became interested in science at MIT after seeing the movie “Iron Man.” Although she was taking multivariable calculus, Olson said she had not considered going into math or science until her high school counselor recommended she look into it.
Before she could commit to becoming a scientist, however, Olson said she had to change the two narratives that had blocked her from the field. The first barrier, she realized, was that she did not see media representation of engineers who looked like her. Second, she had to reject the idea that being a scientist meant she would have to give up her artistic inclinations.
“I realized that engineers are not one size fits all, that we need all sorts of engineers and scientists to tackle the world’s problems,” Olson said. “The single story of a mentor I received in high school allowed me to deconstruct this notion of what was a prerequisite to be a scientist.”
Olson originally pursued a degree in mechanical engineering, but after failing an introductory course her first year she almost transfered schools. Instead, she made a list of her strengths and interests and tried to find overlap. The following year, she turned to computer science and found it was much more hands-on and suited to her learning style.
“Finding role models, figuring out what gets you out of bed in the morning, what gets you excited to work on something until 1 a.m., for me that made me realize, ‘Wow, computer science, you can break things for cheap, you don’t have to wait until senior year to do hands-on projects,’” Olson said.
While she was an undergraduate at MIT, Olson worked to change the narrative that had led her to believe math and science were not creative fields by founding Gique, a nonprofit aimed at educating youth in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
“I went to a school where we had English class, history class, math and science class, and these were all taught in discrete settings,” Olson said. “But when you walk out into the real world, you realize that everything lumps together. I really believed that to be a scientist or engineer, I had to sacrifice this aspect of myself.”
To achieve this, Gique hosts programs such as Science Can DANCE!, where students learn about science and technology through creative dance. They also have coding seminars, after school programs and upload interviews of students and professionals who combine science and art to their website.
After graduating from MIT in 2014, Olson went to work for Microsoft. In the beginning of her career, she said she did not realize it was important for her voice to be heard.
“There were times where it took someone with more power than me encouraging me to speak up, helping me when I was getting interrupted,” Olson said. “But also just the encouragement of mentors that told me they did notice when I did speak up, that my contributions were valuable.”
Gabrielle Rabadam, a fourth-year chemical engineering major at Northeastern and intern at Gique said she also struggled with being interrupted and overlooked in the workplace and at school.
“You just kind of share eyes with the other women in the room when a guy interrupts you. You ask for help after a meeting from the only other person who saw you were trying to say something,” Rabadam said. “Making those connections to people who understand where you’re coming from helps build solidarity and has helped remind me even though things are hard in a board room, in a meeting room, I’m not going at it completely alone.”
Although it can be hard to talk about bad experiences like Rabadam’s, Olson said it is important for people to hear both sides in order to make progress.
“It’s really dangerous for people to not be exposed to stories that are both negative and positive when we’re preparing our next generation for going into tech,” Olson said. She highlighted the recent sexual harassment allegations about Uber, which led to multiple firings and policy changes when they became public.
Olson quit Microsoft and returned to MIT for graduate school after two years, when she realized she wanted to help people but didn’t have the platform to at Microsoft. Olson’s thesis research includes a virtual reality project designed to help 10- to 14-year-old African American children and their parents cope with racial trauma and stress together.
Olson also spoke about the misconception that computer programs and other technologies are unbiased. Cultural and personal biases, such as reading from left to right, are not innate to technology and must be taught. As a result, it is important to have many different perspectives in the room.
“People, in a sense, can produce biased data, and then biased data can produce biased systems, and these biased systems, I believe, can be oppressive systems,” Olson said.
Rose Ajegwu, a second-year industrial engineering major, said she attended Olson’s speech and sees a lack of diversity at Northeastern on the faculty and student level.
“I think it’s really important as well, not only that she’s a black woman but she’s also trying to ignite social change, and I feel like that’s something that’s not really talked about within the engineering field, at least not consciously, because it’s very white, male dominated,” Ajegwu said. “I think it’s almost patronizing the way they go about things.”
Ajegwu believes Northeastern should recruit more students and professors of color across all departments and incorporate topics from the humanities into STEM classes.
“Trying to incorporate social contexts and cultural competency into those classes, and not just trying to say, ‘Oh, take this class to fill a requirement,’ [but] trying to actually incorporate it into the curriculum,” Ajegwu said.