“Everything good starts with your mindset” as said by one of our women in Secure Embedded Systems, Dr. Otily Toutsop;
Hi Otily, it is wonderful to finally speak with you. Thank you for joining us today
Hi Winnie, thank you so much for having me here. Again, I apologize for all the delays. It is an honor for me to be here, and I love what you guys are doing by empowering all the women out there.
Kindly give us a brief introduction about yourself
My name is Otily Toutsop from Cameroon. I just finished my Ph.D. in Secure Embedded Systems at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Currently, I work as an IoT/AI Engineer Researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). A little bit about my background, I have a bachelors in Computer Science and Networking and Telecommunication Systems.
When I arrived in the US, I transferred into a master’s program where I did Electrical and Computer Engineering. However, during my research, I got interested in doing things like Cybersecurity because by then it was a hot topic all over the news. I then applied to change into the Cybersecurity program where courses like Secure Embedded Systems are taught. That’s how I decided to pursue my current passion.
You are one of the women pursuing “hybrid” careers as we call them, tell us a little bit about how you ended up in Secure Embedded Systems
I grew up in a family where most of the people were teachers. At 13 years of age, my mom’s friend talked about her daughter who was studying “computer” abroad and was doing great with her life. My mom was inspired and commented about wanting me to be like that girl, irrespective of her family members insisting that I had to become a teacher like everyone else.
My mom took it upon herself to avail an opportunity for me to learn how to use a computer. She sent me to her friend’s place for 3 months to learn. Because of my desire to make my mom proud, I learned faster than anyone else in that place. I was able to teach people I found there and helped them open up computer shops of their own. That’s when my relatives started believing in me.
By the time I reached high school, I knew I wanted to do engineering because it was the closest thing to computing then. I decided to learn programming while in high school. It was tough but fun, so I stuck to the challenge. I wanted to be that person people look at and say, “I want to be like her!”. There’s no way I was going to do that by being a high school teacher.
After high school, I applied to join the National Advanced School of Post and Telecommunication in Yaounde. The entry exam into this university had almost 10,000 people and the limit was 100 people. My family was worried because I was a nobody, who was going to help me get the required score? 100 people got accepted and I was number 5 on that list. When I joined the school, we were only 9 females with 91 males. By the time I was done with my bachelor’s degree, I was the first in the entire class.
At that same time, I went to the American embassy for my visa. The white guy in there looked at my transcript and simply said, “you have a future”. He didn’t ask me any questions, just stamped my passport and let me come to the United States. I was only 19 when I finished my bachelor’s and was determined to finish my Ph.D. by 25. And that has happened.
You have spoken a lot about teaching other people since you were 13. What are your plans for this life-long passion?
Now that I am done with my Ph.D., I am closer to my dream of having my own research lab or consulting company where I recruit other people. I am looking more at recruiting women because they are more vulnerable when it comes to securing futures. With my already existing experience in industry, I am planning to broaden my knowledge about proposal writing, requesting grants, and, all those skills that come into play when setting up a big research lab. I have always wanted to have something big on the side, for Africa.
I also want to create a pathline between my lab back home and the developed world. Whoever is part of my pathline should be able to come here for internships, networking events, school, or anything else. I want them to experience the exposure and opportunities that I have been lucky to experience. It’s going to be hard to start but I trust myself on this. No matter how many times I might fail, I am willing to move on.
What would you say has been the most challenging time on your journey?
Before I got into my Ph.D. program, I didn’t have the scholarship that I eventually got. I was stressed about how I was going to be able to go to school and make the change that I want without money. I had to talk to different people about my position and asked for help in any way they could. Until one day, that email came, “Congratulations ……”. At that time, I had lost all hope about a stable future for my career. That single email was a miracle for me.
So, to answer the question, the most challenging time was that transition between me not having a scholarship and receiving that email. Other than that, the rest has been very minor for me. I can’t really say they were that challenging.
How were you able to hold everything together before receiving that email?
I always have that positive mindset and always go to people asking for help when I need it. I have met a stranger before who was a Department Director, something I didn’t know and started telling him about my qualifications and passion. He asked me a couple of questions and gave me a job after like a week of our discussion. I didn’t know he took the conversation as an interview.
So, my motivation is that it doesn’t matter what comes my way, I am always going to have a positive mindset. Everything good starts with your mindset.
Let’s talk about some of your prestigious moments along this journey
During my undergraduate degree, my team and I were working on an App to translate words from native languages to French and English. We were just “playing” around but the Government of Cameroon hosted this conference and invited us to present our App. We were in third place as winners. At the end of that conference, I looked back and realized how good I was at technology.
During my master’s here, I received some awards and travel grants for conferences and workshops. Also, I am the first Cameroonian to get a Ph.D. in my department at Morgan Stanley. My work has also been published, you know how serious that is for someone in academia, haha.
Tell us about some of the things you enjoy doing outside the office
Haha, I love this question. Back home, I was a gym trainer. When I am not at school and work here, I still go to the gym. I love exercising, running, playing soccer, dancing, all of that. I still train people about healthy living. About TV, I love watching documentaries and reading stories about successful people. Lastly, I love cooking.
If you had a favorite quote, what would that be?
“If you can dream it, you can do it” ~ Walt Disney.
How would you advise a young African girl who wants a career in Secure Embedded Systems?
I know that not everyone can have the same energy as I do, but if you feel at some point that things are becoming harder, talk to people who have done that already. Follow people on social media and ask to have conversations about their journeys and successes.
Another thing I would encourage them to do is to bridge the gap – it starts with your mind. Avoid looking at things and thinking they are only meant for men. You can also do it. It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it.
This has been a very positive session, thank you so much, Otily! It is important to speak with people like you once in a while. May you keep your energy high always, people around you need it.