Heard of Natural Language Processing? – Salomey Osei

 

Salomey and I are part of the AIMS family, but I personally got to know her through Twitter and LinkedIn. Her work in promoting STEM among young girls is amazing. I got to know her name before officially talking to her. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:

Hi Salomey, how are you doing today?
Hi Winnie, I am well, thank you!

Thank you for sparing some time for us today.
It is my pleasure. Thank you too.

I understand you were in AIMS as well, correct?
Oh yes, I was in AIMS Cameroon in 2017 for the Coop masters program, and then AIMS Ghana in 2019 for the African Masters in Machine Intelligence (AMMI) program.

Wow! Thank you for joining us once again.

What is your full name?
My name is Salomey Osei.

What is your current occupation?
I am a part-time lecturer at BlueCrest University College here in Ghana. I also lead research for unsupervised methods for Natural Language Processing (NLP) Ghana. I am also actively hunting for a PhD, haha. That’s another full-time job.

Please walk us through your STEM journey.
My first motivation for where I am and everything I have achieved in life is my mom. I remember that every time I came back from school with my report card written on 1st position she would be extremely happy. That smile alone was enough for me. So I wanted to always push forward so that I could get that same smile every day. She used to tell her friends about me and how good her daughter was! In fact she used to call me “the doctor” – assuring her friends that I was going to become a doctor, haha.. Apparently when I was growing up I wanted to be a doctor. As far as I remember, by the time I left junior high school, I wanted to do sciences in senior high school. Surprisingly, I started gaining interest in other subjects that were not the obvious sciences.

According to our education system, we choose subjects that we want to do at the university but once the grades are out, you are given one of your choices, depending on your performance. My main interest was in Petrochemical Engineering but I was given my second choice; which was Mathematics. One of the reasons I am interested in encouraging girls to join STEM is that during my days at university, there was only one woman in the Mathematics department. In my class, we were around 10-15 girls! This got me worried! Because of these few numbers, every time we had to do something academic related, we ended up in teams that were male-dominated. We graduated but some of my female friends ended up getting married and paused their careers to take care of their families. Looking at all this pushed me to go forward and become the doctor my mom wanted me to be – maybe not the doctor she meant but to at least have a PhD and be called Dr. Osei.

The problem with this is that there wasn’t any motivation for me! It was a challenge and I had to do it on my own. I graduated and started on the journey; got my first masters, then the second masters and kept going. I then realised that there were people who might face the same situation I was going through then. So I started looking for ways and avenues to bring more girls and women into STEM and to encourage them to stay. The more examples we have in STEM, the more girls we shall see joining us. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I felt during my STEM journey; that’s why I am all about making women in STEM visible for the younger generations and those to come. I want these girls to feel loved and understood by people they can relate with.

Let’s be honest; if there’s a woman and a man for a job, the panel is most likely to give it to a man, especially in Africa. Leaving alone the mentality that women will always miss work to attend to family, or when they are pregnant, and a lot of other things, there is also this notion that drives me nuts; people believe that every powerful woman in a good position got there because they are women! You will find a handful of people who believe that this woman actually knew what she was dong, or was very intelligent! I will give you an example; during my masters, someone told me that I was there because the 30% female requirement had to be satisfied! I figured, the only way to revenge was to get more women in STEM so that we can have an audible voice in society.

Tell us about your prestigious moments in life
My very first award was the scholarship from MasterCard Foundation to pursue my masters in Mathematical Sciences at AIMS. The other one was my joint scholarship from Google and Facebook for the second masters in machine intelligence.

I have luckily joined the Masakhane community, which is a Natural Language Processing (NLP) research project. This community has been named a joint winner of the inaugural 2021 Wikimedia Foundation Research Award of the Year. That’s very prestigious for me. I also have other publications and have received several grants to attend conferences, like, the NeuRIPS 2020 in Vancouver (Awarded by Black in AI).

I have been invited as a speaker on various workshops – countless workshops, haha we can’t exhaust all of them in a list. But yes, I have been privileged to speak to different audiences about different topics; work, women in science and the challenges, what the future holds for us, etc.

Who is Salomey outside work?
Well, for hobbies, I don’t have any, haha. Okay, not that I don’t have but I have lost track of the hobbies I used to have. Do you know why? It’s because I spend most of my time talking about women, mentoring students, reviewing students’ work, their CV’s, and motivation letters. Monday to Friday, I am doing that! My evenings are always filled with meetings, weekends – I have class, Sunday – I am going to church, back to Monday.

Just to answer, I used to enjoy watching movies – they help me calm down when I am overwhelmed. I also have a couple of friends who occasionally take me site-seeing. One of them is my best friend. She is the complete opposite of me – more active and out-going yet I am more reserved, haha. So she brings the ideas and plans the activities. Otherwise, you can say I read – but still it’s academic reading, so it doesn’t count that much.

And yes, I love travelling. How could I have forgotten that! I love travelling so much! It’s the best part of academia – trying out new foods, meeting new people, experiencing new cultures,..yes, that’s my best part.

At least we have something, haha…..yes travelling counts as a hobby. I personally enjoy it too.

Do you have a favourite quote?
Mathematics is like a woman, maybe complex and complicated yet the most beautiful and powerful tool. It is not just about numbers, algorithms or equations but understanding” ~ Salomey Osei.

What is your word of encouragement for a young girl in STEM?
In my opinion I believe that everyone should do what they love doing. So, STEM is good but once you don’t have the passion, you will only be doing it for the money – something that’s not healthy. You also have to be patient because everything starts from zero before reaching the top. So, don’t start your career thinking things are going to be handed out on a silver platter. Rather build your career one step at a time. Find someone to guide you along the way. Be focused on everything you do and avoid being swayed by the negativity and comments of people around you who think what you are venturing into is impossible.

Lastly, be willing to hold another person’s hand once you get to the top. Everyone needs all the help they can get, however small it might be. I know for sure that if I had someone to groom me from a tender age, it would have helped me a lot! I was a young girl with a lot of passion and interest in sciences, but had no one to look up to. This didn’t stop me from succeeding but we all know, today’s generation is different.

Thank you very much Salomey. It’s always amazing to speak to a woman that’s as passionate about this cause as you are! It was a wonderful moment of learning for me. Thank you once again.

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