You Can’t Be Someone You Can’t See – Deborah Dormah Kanubala

 

Deborah and I are part of the AIMS Alumni family, but I personally got to know her through a mutual friend called Salomey. Her work in promoting STEM among young African girls is inspirational! Here is our interview about her STEM journey:

Hi Deborah, it’s good to finally speak with you
Hi Winnie, thank you. I am excited to be here.

Thank you for joining us on this episode of Words That Count
It is my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me, I am really grateful.

Briefly introduce yourself please
My name is Deborah Dormah Kanubala from Ghana.

First of all, I would like to commend you for what you are doing. As a fellow founder of STEM advocacy initiatives; Women in Machine Learning and Data Science and Women Promoting Science to the Younger Generation, I find this very important. My initiatives do physical meet-ups, conferences and workshops to encourage young African girls that not all STEM people end up becoming teachers. So for you to actually have examples of these women featured is another important aspect of the campaign. One thing I know is you can’t be someone you can’t see! With our small efforts, we hope to see good representation of African women in STEM in the next few years.

Back to me, haha, I am a lecturer at Academic City University in Accra, Ghana and also work remotely as a Natural Language Processing (NLP) Engineer with Proto, Canada. These are the two things that pay the bills, however I am also involved with other activities like the previously mentioned initiatives, which seek to get more representation of women in STEM, specifically Machine Learning and Data Science.

How did you become an NLP Engineer and Lecturer?
Haha it’s really a long journey and I am wondering where to start from!

Like most children my age, I had a very strong phobia for Mathematics and Science at the early stages of my academic life. Anything that had to do with calculations shook me to the core. This was as a result of the myth I had in my head that Mathematics is a difficult subject and that males who have higher mental faculties rather than females should be the ones pursuing such subjects.

Nonetheless, following an epiphany during an algebra class in my Junior High School, I realized that Mathematics can be liked to any other language and that all one needs to do is to understand the rules and apply them correctly. This understanding of Mathematics is however still lost to most young people, especially females in my part of the world. This phenomenon is of huge concern to me and has therefore engaged my attention throughout my life thus far.

Keen to change the status quo in my locality, I have taken bold steps in my personal educational life which have culminated in the award of an Bsc. Financial Mathematics: 2016 , MSc. in Mathematical Science: 2019, Msc. Machine Intelligence: 2021, Mphil. Applied Mathematics: 2021.

Months before completing my masters degree in machine intelligence, I attended an AIMS Alumni get together and it was there I got to meet my current University employer. Before the start of the event, I spoke to him about my background and fortunately, the institution was already looking at introducing some new programs in the same area. Our discussion continued via email, followed by a series of interviews and then I made it in!.

As a person who loves to cast my net wide and not put my eggs in one basket, I had already applied for a job as an NLP Engineer while going through the selection process with my University. I carried out interviews with that one too and fortunately again that was also successful. This is the reason why I work as both an NLP Engineer and Lecturer. I love the experience so far, as I am getting both industrial and academia experience.

What have been some of the challenges in your journey?
These are quite many but I will try to summarize them.

My biggest challenge was with my health which happened while I was still in high school. I fell seriously ill a few months before my final examinations. I returned to school almost a week before my final exams and I remember my mom being very scared but God was so good; I got the grades I needed to go to the university.

The other big challenge I faced was during my time at AIMS. I don’t know if it was the same with you Winnie! I noticed generally that Anglophones turn out to be good and highly skilled when it comes to Applied Mathematics but sort of lack the same for Pure Mathematics (this may be relative). But now, here was Deborah in a Francophone country, doing the type of Mathematics they are okay with! I had to learn that and the timing was so short! It put a lot of pressure on me. In fact, I questioned myself a lot and began doubting myself at some point. From my previous academic training, I always felt like this bold and intelligent girl but then the AIMS training was proving me otherwise haha! Thankfully, my mom and friends at AIMS were of tremendous help.

The tricky part with every challenge is; you get to enjoy the fruits after everything calms down. After completing the AIMS Senegal program, I felt really accomplished and proud, it was one of the best parts of my life, haha. Right now I know there’s nothing I can’t handle; the moment I put my mind to it and focus, I can definitely succeed. I say thanks to AIMS for putting this kind of resilience in me and making me understand that life is not always going to be rosy but I have to face my fears and move.

What kept inspiring you amidst all these challenges?
First I would say, my mom! She has been and still is a huge source of inspiration to me. After all we have been through as a small family and what she has sacrificed to have me go through school, makes me push on every single day. I can’t afford to disappoint her.

After AIMS I also noticed that people were looking up to me. I can’t let those people down too. The moment I give up, it’s not just on myself but on all these people looking up to me. That’s something I can’t live with.

Please share with us some of your prestigious moments of recognition
My very first one was after graduating from AIMS, haha. Finishing AIMS was a huge achievement for me! I know many people who go to AIMS but fail to keep up with the stress and have to return home. Being able to go through the entire program in a French speaking country is something I don’t take lightly.

Second is being selected to attend the Heidelberg Laureate Forum(HLF) in Germany. The HLF is an annual networking event that brings together recipients of the most prestigious awards in mathematics and computer science: (Abel Prize, ACM A.M Turing Award, ACM Prize in Computing, Fields Medal and Nevanlinna Prize) to meet with 200 carefully selected young researchers from all over the world. Fortunately, I was part of these selected young researchers and I spent a week interacting and networking with all of these people in a relaxed atmosphere in the beautiful city of Hedielberg (Germany), all fully paid! I feel so proud hahahhah.

I also attended Deep Learning IndabaX in Ghana and my presentation won the best poster prize. I got a fully paid trip to Nairobi, Kenya to attend the main Deep Learning Indaba Conference.

Also, while at AIMS, I was a MasterCard Foundation Scholar. Actually, that particular year AIMS Senegal had only 5 available slots for MCF scholars and we had to go through a selection process. Thankfully I was part of the 5 out of 35 selected students. Aside from that, I later got awarded a research grant from MCF scholar research program to conduct research on Increasing Women In STEM transition into Tertiary Education. Around the same time, I got another grant from Alumnode ( It is a collaboration between HLF, GSO Leadership Academy, the Klaus Tschira Boost Fund and the KlarTextAward for Science Communication) to organize an international STEM conference in my home region – Northern Ghana.

In addition, getting accepted into AMMI; that was another big moment for me. This program had more than 7,000 applicants and accepted less than 100. I was one of those few accepted people.

Finally to top it all up, I got recognized as one of the top 100 most influential in Northern Ghana – STEM category. I can keep going on and on about my achievements, haha. I am a very grateful person.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?
One thing I noticed that I really enjoy doing is dancing. I love to dance and sing; so sometimes I just lock myself inside the house, play music and start dancing. My mom knows me as someone who makes myself happy. She doesn’t worry so much about me and making friends.

I also love traveling and seeing nature. It doesn’t have to be something expensive but just taking long walk beside the beach makes me very happy.

What is your best quote?
I have noticed that every time I am invited to speak I use this quote; “nobody is a custodian of all knowledge”. I resonate so much with this quote because I believe that you can never find all knowledge in one single person. Aside that, you can never tell who you learn from; it doesn’t matter the age or background of that person; you can learn from anyone!

How would you encourage a young girl who is trying to fit into STEM?
I will use my own experience in this case; often the ways of man are never the ways of God! So sometimes what you plan for yourself may not go as you wish because that’s not what God has planned for you. As such, never limit yourself. Like I mentioned before, I applied to different places every step of my journey. In life, learn how to cast your nets wide so that you get better rewards.

Accept the fact that nothing good comes easy; you always have to put in some level of effort in it. The moments you feel like giving up are your closest moments to success. Giving up might be an option but don’t ever accept it. Always keep your eye on the prize and you will surely get it.

Keep focused, keep working hard and believe in your God.

Side note: For anyone interested in learning about my work in programming, please visit my website

Thank you very much Deborah! This was such a fun session. I look forward to more interactions between us.

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