Breath of Fresh Air: Diversity Heroes – Bolanle Ojokoh

Our world was temporarily united in the fight against COVID-19. However, recent events, including the tragic death of George Floyd has served to highlight that for some, the battle against racism has not changed. In response to this, we would like to take a firm stand.  ACM has a clear policy against discrimination and harassment. #blacklivesmatter

As a community, we embrace our diversity; diversity makes us better, stronger. We cannot do enough to applaud all of our heroes in their diversity.  They are people who are ACM members, volunteers or experts in their field.

Starting from this month, we will talk with a number of heroes about their tech career journey, about their perspective on intersectionality and reflect on initiatives for equality. In June, we met (online) with Dr Bolanle Ojokoh, who is an Associate Professor at the Federal University of Technology Akure, Nigeria. Dr Ojokoh is part of womENcourage family, having attended the event in 2019, in Rome. 

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?  What was your inspiration, the driving force that led you to study and work in computing? 

I was born forty-five years ago to Mr and Mrs Abegunde, who hailed from a little village in the South-Western part of Nigeria. They migrated to the city of Lagos, the former capital of my country before I was born.  I am the first child of a family of six children.  My father was a journalist, who later became a politician and my mother a mathematics teacher.  As a child, I found out that I grew to love Mathematics and reading.  I used to analyze and draw pictures on my mind. I attended one of the best schools in the first eight years of my life that gave me a strong educational foundation.  Nevertheless, as the situation would have it, with the challenge in my father’s career, we had to relocate.  I still found myself being the top in my class throughout elementary and high school. As a result, I became the Senior Prefect in the all girls’ school I attended.  Being a somewhat quiet personality, I had to face the challenge of leading girls with some determination to create an impact.  We participated in different quiz, essay and other competitions where our school emerged top.  Common with the public high schools of our time, we lacked adequate science teachers, especially Physics; this affected me somehow; but due to my doggedness, I emerged the second-best in the final Senior School Certificate Examination in my local government.  

Computing was a new course when I was growing up, but due to my flair for Mathematics and my interest in pursuing any Professional course that requires a lot of Mathematics, I thought of Engineering, Accounting or Computer Science; I ended up studying Computing. I also emerged the best graduating student in the Faculty of Science at my University.

What challenges have you faced?  Were you able to overcome them? How?

Oh, I had a lot of challenges.  They were diverse though, and I was able to overcome them to get to where I am today.  I had a job break in 2002, because of the late completion of my Masters degree.  This was shortly after my marriage.  It was somewhat difficult for my family to cope financially, especially with the coming of my first baby shortly afterwards. This gingered extra efforts in me, looking away from the financial and emotional stress; I got through, completed the programme, and got an Assistant Lectureship position back in the same University in 2004.  Then, another challenge of pursuing a Ph.D while raising children came up, coupled with the fact that it was not really easy having enough exposure in our part of the world in Computer Science.  It was a great challenge; so, I started looking for the means to get a scholarship or fellowship to conduct part of my studies outside our environment.  I got a fellowship opportunity that I later lost because of the condition that I had to leave my children who were already three then back home.  Amidst the loss, I travelled with my family, on our own personal family funding with a little scholarship from my state, and got some breakthrough at my Ph.D. In a space of five months, I could extend a hidden Markov model that was used in our research group some years back.  It was a novel idea and the work got published in a high impact journal, and I was invited back for a Postdoc in the renowned Peking University, because of my research performance.  This opportunity provided a stepping stone to climbing the ladder in my research career in Computing. 

Another challenge I faced was the dynamism of the Computing field.  I found that teaching the same content you taught some two years ago might have been obsolete, so I had to keep on developing and re-training myself personally to be able to meet up giving the best to my students. 

Combining career with raising kids and family commitments were challenging too; it kept me overstaying on my Ph.D; had to stay on some sleepless nights, working on the computers for hours non-stop; trying to train younger ones, and later found them assisting me in the journey too; many times almost giving up; kept praying and believing I could break through, and here I am today.

What has been your career highlight? 

After my first degree in Computing, I aimed at getting a job in a tech company where I would be able to practice, but during my compulsory one year Youth Service, where I taught Mathematics and Computing at different levels – from young girls to high school students and adults, I discovered that I had some innate teaching qualities. This got me considering teaching in a higher institution as a career option. Luckily for me, I got a Graduate Assistantship job in the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria shortly after graduation. I became really interested in the teaching profession; I discovered that I found some fulfillment imparting knowledge. I proceeded with my Masters and later my Ph.D, rose through the positions of Assistant Lecturer and became an Associate Professor in 2016. I have mentored thousands of students in Computer Science over the years. I have supervised over sixty undergraduate students, twenty Masters and seven Ph.D to graduation. I have also participated in several projects, including funded ones, and collaborated with researchers in Nigeria, China, USA, Benin, and Ghana.

I have a keen interest in motivating younger ones, especially girls and women into science.  I have participated in several outreach activities to this effect.  I  served as the Scientific Chair of the 2nd National Conference of the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) in 2015.  I was a Program Committee Member of the Joint Conference of Digital Libraries (JCDL) in 2016 and 2017. I was the Organizing Chair of the 1st African Symposium and 4th TYAN International Thematic Workshop on Big Data, Analytics and Machine Intelligence, Akure,  Nigeria in June 2019. I have attended several conferences, workshops, scientific meetings and schools with up to thirteen travel awards based in Brazil, Hungary, Italy, China, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Finland, USA, South Africa, Argentina, and Rwanda.  I have made several presentations both at local and international levels.  I am currently motivating researchers and leading research groups in contributing to solving problems on COVID-19. I have eighty-two publications.  I was at the ACM WomENcourage in Rome in 2019, where I served as a volunteer.  There, I had the opportunity to make some friends and was really excited about the motivational activities for young female computer scientists.

What are you most proud of?

I am proud of the researcher I am growing to be and especially the fact that I am mentoring a lot of young researchers.  Many times it is challenging on both sides, but I am happy that  many of them are finding their footing in Computing research.  I have also taught a number of people who have grown up to become important people in the society; I am also happy about this. 

My participation in the international community is another area of captivating interest to me. I got the opportunity of being elected into the Executive Board of the Young Affiliate Network of The World Academy of Sciences, a prominent body committed to the advancement of science for the developing world, where I have served in different capacities. I have also been invited to speak in prominent international events. I was also excited about my appearance in the news of some international organizations like TWAS (1, 2, 3) and Elsevier Foundation (4), and it is a great pleasure being invited here by ACM-W Europe.

If you were to change something in the way we run tech communities and networks, what would you change?  

The tech community is trying to consciously give more room to women; this should continue. Women are particularly faced with a number of challenges such that there is the need to put in place deliberate policies that consider gender.  More initiatives that encourage, empower and engage women participation in tech should be created. ACM-W is a laudable one in that regard and this arm is doing a lot to bring women into the limelight. There should be more recognition and rewards for excellence. One important thing is outreach work,  especially North-South collaboration and exchanges, vertical attempts to reach out to the under-represented in developing settings, who are talented and would have been better contributors to developing the world if there had been more enlightenment. Improved industry-academic linkage, especially in the developing settings, should be more encouraged too.

Can you comment on diversity or intersectionality issues that you have experienced, seen or been made aware of?  

Racism, diversity and segregation issues abound all around the globe.  In Africa where I was born and currently reside, there was a prominent one when I was growing up, with a popular figure, “Nelson Mandela” in South Africa.  Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist who eventually emerged as the country’s first black President in 1994.  Mandela’s message was one of peace, justice and freedom, an inclusive campaign that all people could support. In Nigeria, we find the practice of restricting some tribes from occupying some positions in the government – a particular tribe wants to occupy the presidential position for all ages.  This promotes segregation of all sorts. In spite of the fact that we are all of the same colour, there are still tribal sentiments, religious discriminations and wars of all sorts. There are some sects fighting an unending war, claiming to be advocating against the western culture, with a lot of killings, wasting precious lives. 

 I have experienced a little of this outside the Nigerian setting, where sometimes, your paper does not get published, except you include authors from the Western countries;  you may not be part of some professional communities if you do not ‘belong’ to the accepted group.

Recently, it is getting worrisome hearing of blacks being killed by police unjustly leading to protests here and there.  I think it is very important to look into this situation that innocent ones do not continue to lose their lives and insecurity starts becoming the order of the day.

Who is your Diversity/Equality Hero, and why?

Computing is one of the STEM fields and like many STEM fields all over the world, there is a problem maintaining a strong and diverse pipeline.  Women generally are underrepresented in this field. Over the years of my career in computing, some prominent women have entered history as pioneers in Algorithms, Compilers etc.  I would select Grace Hopper as my Diversity/Equality Heroine, for her pioneering efforts in Compiler design for Programming Languages.  She popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages which led to development of COBOL.  I have taught Compiler Construction for several years in the University, and have found the course particularly interesting, even though many people do not seem to like it.  No wonder the largest gathering of women in Computing, Grace Hopper Celebration,  was named after her.  

What would you recommend to young people thinking of a career in computing?

I would tell young people who are interested in computing career to develop their skills creativity, analytical thinking and innovation. Be persistent – don’t give up easily; be ready to adapt to change, and keep on aspiring. Be passionate about your interest in computing; without that, you cannot go far. I have found out that over the years that we need more Mathematics than we think in Computing, especially in learning environments that are not application-centred. Computing is more of application of mathematical skills. You don’t necessarily solve Mathematics but you are always applying it; so its knowledge is paramount.

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