Women in Machine Learning – Abemgnigni Njifon Marianne

African women have taken tremendous steps toward maximizing the use of technology for Africa’s development. Today, Marianne talks about her journey and passion for machine learning.

Hi Marianne, I am happy to finally speak with you. Foutse has said so much about you that I feel like we have already met, haha. Thank you for joining us today
Hi, Winnie! Wow, this is a very big honor for me. Thank you very much for considering me, and thanks to Foutse for the recommendation.

Briefly introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Abemgnigni Njifon Marianne from Yaounde, Cameroon. I am currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Göttingen in Germany. My specialization is in developing Machine Learning methods and investigating their mathematical foundation to improve inference on spatial data.

Please walk us through your journey into Machine Learning
I started my university curriculum at the University of Yaounde I but was not living close to the University. That came with a lot of challenges. The area I was living in was risky, especially during days when I left school late after serious rains. I, nevertheless, managed to complete my Master’s in Physics in 2017 with a very good grade.

After that, it became hard and almost impossible for me to continue my education further because of financial issues. Thankfully, I was awarded a MasterCard Scholarship to complete a 10-months taught masters at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Cameroon.

After graduating with distinction, I received a Google and Facebook scholarship to complete a taught African Masters in Machine Intelligence (AMMI), at AIMS Rwanda. Then, I had the opportunity to intern at DeepMind as a research engineer, and at Google Brain as a resident. In both cases, my role consisted of conducting Deep Learning research. I joined the research training group RTG2088 as a Ph.D. student at the University of Goettingen right after the research roles.

You have walked such an admirable journey! What are some of the challenges you have faced?
Choosing to do Physics at the university was a surprise for everyone including me because it was not the subject I was best at in high school. I had better grades in Mathematics, Biology, Philosophy,…haha. I chose Physics because I am naturally curious about why things happen the way they do, and I believe Physics answers that question best. To my surprise, my curiosity and willingness alone were not enough. I failed almost all the subjects during the first semester except English. I realized I had to hold on tight if I wanted to make it through that journey.

My second challenge was when I joined AIMS. It was an excellent opportunity but the truth is that I was switching from Physics to Mathematics, and the latter can be much more abstract than the former. I was motivated because this additional curriculum would give me stronger skills since my love for theoretical physics required sound knowledge of mathematics. On the other hand, there were several backgrounds in different mathematics specializations that I did not have.

I sat in a class with mathematicians who were sometimes asking questions and bringing debates to levels that were extremely hard to follow. It could probably be my fault because instead of going for courses that were closer to my original background I was always registering for more abstract classes and advanced lectures for mathematicians. But I thought that was the whole charm of it and that I had to fully take advantage of the environment I was in.

I also faced a challenge when I started AMMI; I hated Python at the beginning. We had python classes at AIMS, but I missed the beginning of those classes because I was sick. I joined the classes later but it was somehow late for me because people had already covered the basics. I was so frustrated that I started hating python because I thought Python was related to the terminal. This story is dumb but was real for me. When I joined AMMI, I had to reconcile with Python, explore more topics in mathematics, and enlarge my knowledge in coding.

Outside school, my challenge has always been the fear of failing to make it. I have tendencies of doubting my capacity and wondering if I am where I am meant to be. I think this is what we call impostor syndrome! It has pushed me to work much harder than normal because I always think that I have gaps to fill.

With my work comes traveling; I know this is good but it is also a challenge for me, especially when I experience extreme weather changes. It is funny because my current research involves applications of data science algorithms to climate modeling, traffic prediction, neuroscience, and earth science. I feel like I am doing something that I can personally relate to, outside the theory in class.

You have faced various challenges at different points on your journey; what has kept you from giving up?
The motivation to finish what I start. I always prefer to go until the end and have my questions answered instead of quitting and wondering what could have happened if I stayed. That also means sacrificing several hours of sleep sometimes lol :-).

I am also grateful for the support I receive from my family, friends, and good mentors.

Let’s talk about some of the prestigious moments during this machine learning journey
Okay, I will list these;

I am the Co-lead and Content Manager of Bel’s AI Initiative (2021-present), a member of the WIMLDS-Yaounde Chapter (2021-present), and KmerAI (2020-present).

For speeches, I have been an invited speaker at the 3rd Global Summit on Physics (October 2021) and also co-organized the Mobile Health Workshop at Neurips (December 2020),

I have won the Best Poster Presentation (London, Machine Learning Summer School 2019), best Debate Opening Statement, (Kigali, AMMI 2019), Best Student Oral Presentation, (Windhoek, ASP 2018), and second-best Female with Distinction, (Limbe, AIMS 2018).

Congratulations to you!

How do you enjoy your time away from computers?
Outside of work, I enjoy doing sports, listening to music, traveling, and discovering new activities. Recently, I discovered Kung-fu, Judo, and boxing. I also learned how to bike and I am now learning how to play guitar.

What’s your favorite quote?
I do not have one yet but I like the favorite quote of one of my best friends: “Great today’s, better tomorrow’s”.

What is your word of encouragement for a young girl in STEM?
If you have a dream go for it, give it your best. If you do not have one yet, keep on doing what you enjoy. In any case, never doubt your abilities to succeed.

Thank you very much, Marianne! I know you are running on a busy schedule but have spared time for us. I appreciate that and wish you more success on your machine learning journey.

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