Michigan Minds Special Series: Women in STEM
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Rada Mihalcea, professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, joins this episode of Michigan Minds to explain her research in natural language processing, a subfield of artificial intelligence‚ and what she feels are the best ways to encourage more women and girls to pursue work in STEM-related fields.
Mihalcea directs the AI Lab and is a co-founder and the director of Girls in Coding, which is a series of initiatives in computer science to encourage more diversity. The mission of her lab is to advance the foundations and applications of AI to solve problems in a wide range of areas.
“It’s the intersection between natural language processing and social sciences,” she says. “We create new methodologies to explore different phenomenons, solve problems, but keep humans at the center [of our work].”
One example of her recent work has been building computational models that would allow researchers to understand cultural differences between groups of people.
“That would allow us to build systems that could understand conversations around health, like counseling conversations or conversations between patients and healthcare providers, that will even attempt to generate some short text, all with the goal of understanding and helping in those settings that are human-centric,” Mihalcea explains.
The AI Lab has been conducting several projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including one that tries to assist people with anxiety and another examining how the pandemic has been triggering and exacerbating mental health conditions.
“This is really gaining a deeper understanding of humans, I think we can contribute to that,” she says.
Mihalcea also discusses how important it is to paint an accurate picture for those looking to join science and engineering fields.
“There are some stereotypical views out there that, for instance, computer science is all about programming, possibly in a dark basement all day long without meeting anyone. And it’s actually the wrong stereotype, it’s really not what the field is.
“Exposing people to what really needs to be in the STEM field, what different careers will look like, providing opportunities to meet with role models…I think those are things that work well. There is room for a lot more, as we know,” she says.
Mihalcea adds that she sees herself as a part of a bigger mission, which motivates her, and she thinks other women in the field should see themselves in that light as well.
“You can become a role model. It’s important for you to stick with it, fight challenges and move on, and then you will be part of changing the face of the field,” she says.
“You really have an opportunity to make a difference, to bring your own life experiences and build tools that eventually better [society] because they are created by a more diverse pool of people.”
“Those are things that personally I’m very motivated by: Am I inspiring others to enter the field? Am I contributing to something and making sure that it’s actually representative of the population?”