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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 San Paulo state.  My father had a business degree and my mom stopped her education in 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, making 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.  Mom was a housewife and stay-at-home Mom.


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.  Read a book called consciousness explained by Daniel Dennett.    I didn’t have a computer or access to internet connections at home. I had no experience with computers. I didn’t know what hardware and software was.  I had to use the dictionary and my English was terrible. My father saved some money to have a professor help me read this book.  The professor said go somewhere to learn English if you can.  I did volunteer work in England to learn English.  I came back to Brazil and I had decided to get a PhD in Computer. I told my philosophy professors and said to stop thinking about it – would not be feasible.  I was not happy with the answer.   I scheduled a meeting with a professor at the top Engineering School in Brazil and he told me they do not accept people from my background but would allow exceptions.  The only way to do it was prove I was an exception.    I saw in AI a way to test ideas and philosophical questions.  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 and applied again and was accepted.  I just recently finished my PhD and I was starting to look at jobs.  I followed the Cognitive Science Society and saw a Postdoc opportunity at Vanderbilt University.   I applied and was accepted.  It was very surprising – I did not intend to move to the US and came thinking I would only be here 1 year.  I stayed 4 years, then applied for faculty positions and came to Grinnell.

What are you working on now?

 At Vanderbilt I worked with Autism and Innovation on how they can help people on the autism spectrum to find employment opportunities.  The program was a bridge between Fisk and Vanderbilt University – working with underrepresented minorities.


At Grinnell AI is my area of course.  I am teaching not only what I love and what brought me here my passion for AI and philosophy.  And I sent an email to Daniel Dennett, the author who inspired me on this path, and he replied.


How did you become involved in the Tapia Conference?

I started in fall 2020 at Grinnell.  The CS department paid for me to attend the conference in 2020.  When I registered, I was asked if I want to judge in the doctoral consortium and I did.  My department chair was also there.

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

Last year at the DC I really enjoyed being able to watch the presentations, then I offered myself to give additional feedback to one of the students.  There are so many ways I can help people; it is so much easier when you are online than doing emails.  I met with the student online and had such a great experience. 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.  


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

AI  can be extended to computer science.  I wish that people start to build more diverse teams – not only about people, also about their domains, disciplines and where they are from.  Bring philosophers and other domains together, not just because it looks good or beautiful.  We need to be thinking about other countries and what their realities are.  We need to be in touch and really understand how things can be used in both harmful and good ways.  We need to empower what is good.