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19 May 2021

An Interview with Fernanda Eliott, #Tapia2021 Student Posters Deputy Chair

Fernanda Eliott Photo

Fernanda Eliott is the 2021 Tapia Conference Student Posters/ACM Student Research Competition Committee Deputy Chair and an assistant professor of computer science at Grinnell College.  We spoke to her about becoming involved with the Tapia Conference and how she became involved with computer science.

Tell me about where you grew up and what work your parents did.

I am Brazilian and grew up in Sao Paulo state.  My father had a business degree, and my mom stopped her education prior to high school.  Sometimes she still has nightmares about math tests.  My mother’s mother used to count the number of pages in my mother’s notebook to make sure she was only using it for schoolwork and not other things.  My grandmother was very strict and controlling.  My mother was not very strict.

How did you get started with computer science?

I have a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy.  In my third year in college, I was doing research with my professor, and was asked to read a book called consciousness explained by Daniel Dennett.   That is when I heard for the first time the words “software” and “hardware”. I didn’t have a computer or access to internet connections at home, or even experience with computers.  I had to use the dictionary and my English was terrible. My father saved some money to have someone help me read this book, and my professor said go somewhere to learn English if you can.  I did volunteer work in England to learn English and came back to Brazil decided to get a PhD in Computer Science. I saw in AI a way to approach ideas and philosophical questions.  Back to my philosophy course, my professors told me to stop thinking about computers – that would not be feasible.  I was not happy with the answer.   I scheduled a meeting with a professor at a top Engineering School in Brazil and he told me they did not accept people from my background but would allow exceptions.  The only way to do it was to prove that I was an exception. The first time I applied to the master’s degree program I was rejected. The professor called and told me he would help me prepare to try again in six months. I took more courses in statistics, applied again, and was finally accepted. This professor became my masters and PhD advisor, he changed my life! Then, I had just recently finished my PhD and I was reading the Cognitive Science Society website when I saw a Post Doc opportunity at Vanderbilt University.   I was so enthusiastic to get this job! It was the beginning of a new journey: I came to the US thinking I would only be here for 1 year, but I stayed 4 years, then applied for faculty positions and came to Grinnell.

What are you working on now?

At Vanderbilt, I was a Data Science Institute (DSI) postdoctoral fellow, and a member of the AIVAS lab, and the Vanderbilt Initiative in Data-intensive Astrophysics. I was also happy to be involved in some activities at the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, and at the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s to Ph.D. Bridge Program (a program to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM). Now at Grinnell College, I continue my research in AI, and I am teaching not only what I love but also what brought me here: my passion for AI and cognitive sciences. A while ago I sent an email to Daniel Dennett, the author who inspired me on this path, and I was enthusiastic when he replied to me.

How did you become involved in the Tapia Conference?

I started in fall 2020 at Grinnell College, and the CS department had some funds to send me and other colleagues and students to Tapia 2020.  After registering to the conference, I had the opportunity to serve as a judge in the doctoral consortium.

We are celebrating 20 years of Tapia Celebrating Diversity in Computing this year.  What are you looking forward to this year?

Last year I really enjoyed being able to watch the presentations, and I offered myself to give additional feedback to one of the students.  There are so many ways we can help people!  I met with the student online and that was such a great experience. Now, I am looking forward to doing something similar, to be in touch with more students and give them insights and just to interact with them and my colleagues. 

What are your hopes for the next 20 years of Diversity in Computer Science?

I wish that people start to build more diverse teams (I mean not only people, but disciplines as well), and foster diversity not just because it looks good or beautiful, but because we need to be thinking about other realities/countries and how the technologies we develop impact them. It is essential to bring many voices to CS and AI, that is actually part of my job, and I take it very seriously.