Meet Flora Ponjou Tasse, Head of CV/AI Research at Streem Inc

April 29, 2020

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Flora’s Bio

Born and raised in Cameroon, Flora is the Head of CV/AR Research at Streem Inc – an Augmented Reality company based in Portland, US. She specializes in AI applied to Computer Graphics and Vision problems which involve understanding or generating visual content. Her team at Streem is making the mobile phone’s camera intelligent, by building AI agents that could understand images/videos and augment them with relevant interactive virtual content. She joined Streem after it acquired her startup Selerio, which was spun out of her Ph.D. work at Cambridge University.  At Cambridge, Flora research work focused on 3D shape retrieval using different query types such as 3D models, images, sketches, and range scans. This work was awarded the 2013 Google Doctoral Fellowship in Computer Graphics and published in various top-tier venues across the globe. She served on several international program committees. Notably, she was paper chair for the 2019 Black in AI workshop, co-located with NeurIPS in Vancouver, Canada. She was recently named among the Rework Top 30 UK Women in AI and listed on Computer Weekly Most Influential Women in UK longlist.

Why did you get into STEM?

Growing up in Douala (Cameroon), I was obsessed with Hollywood movies and their reality-bending visual special effects. When I was around 10, the movie Jurassic Park, in particular, stood out to me in the way the dinosaurs felt real and how they interacted with their environment. For me that was magic. The concept that we could create another world and extend our reality was very appealing and was the driving force behind my path from studying in Maths and Computer Science to pursuing a career in AI for Augmented Reality (AR). 

I learned since then the many ways Computer Science and in particular (AR) can be used for more than just entertainment. At my company, we use it to rethink what remote communication is. From the comfort of your own home, you can get support from a remote expert that will use AR to show you how to fix your home appliances. The remote expert, a plumber, for instance, sees via a live stream of your phone camera what the situation is, and can right then and there insert 3D relevant instructions in your physical scene that tells you what to do, what knob to turn, etc. It is really humbling for me to see how such technology is helping users get better and faster support.

And beyond my passion for extending reality, I knew from a young age that tech could be a powerful tool to really turn around some of the socio-economic difficulties I could see around me. With just a computer, internet, and my brain I could create something great and make an impact. More than anything else, that is why I got into STEM.

What do you consider your greatest achievements?

Coming from a French-speaking background, deciding to pursue my undergraduate studies in an English-speaker University was not easy. So I am particularly proud of my BSc in Mathematics at the University of Buea (Cameroon)  for giving me a strong Maths foundation and helping me improve my English language skills. My one-year Honours degree at Rhodes University (South Africa) was where I started my Computer Graphics research journey which will always be special.

My first big break though was at the University of Cape Town. There, I received the 2011 Google Anita Borg Scholarship for both my MSc research work on virtual 3D landscape generation and outreach activities like teaching programming to underprivileged high school kids. That was the first time I was getting recognition from a top organisation outside of the continent. That was an inflection point in my career and it opened doors to various opportunities abroad.

After working in the industry following my Msc in Cape Town, I had another big break: a fully-funded scholarship for a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. That was a mind-blowing moment, given that I had received almost 20 letters of rejection from various Ph.D. committees across the world prior to that. It had always been a dream for me to do my research in one of the Top 100 universities in the world. Cambridge was at the top. In addition to this, being the 2013 Google European Doctoral Fellowship in Computer Graphics a year into my Ph.D. was among my greatest moments. That fellowship has one of the most selective application processes in the world for there is only one award a year per subject area. My parents encouraged me to apply for it, even though I thought I did not stand a chance against other brilliant researchers at Cambridge University and the whole of Europe. I am glad I tried.

After my PhD, I took a leap of faith and co-founded a tech startup called Selerio. The startup journey is arguably the most difficult thing I have ever done. Despite the difficult moments, it was such an amazing experience to be part of a great team and to go through so much learning within a short timespan. Two and a half years of hard work later, a great exit came in the form of an acquisition of Selerio by the US-based company Streem Inc. Now seeing Selerio technology being integrated into Streem AR experience and seeing that deployed at massive scale into people’s hands, I can say Selerio is to date my greatest achievement.

I should add that as important as building technical expertise is, so is giving back into the community. I was honoured to serve as Paper Chair for the 2019 Black in AI workshop co-located with NeurIPS in Vancouver last year, and help several incredible African researchers present their work in front of the world AI community. Being part of that brought me tremendous joy and pride. Africa is full of talent.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?

Unfortunately, in some communities in Africa and other places in the world, there is still the notion that women should not pursue excellence in their career or studies. I had been told at times that I should not go too much further in my studies or I should not get into tech because the long hours will affect family life. We are constantly told to lean back and make premature decisions in fear of the future.  Fortunately, I have an amazingly supportive family that really pushed me to excel in each step of the way. My parents always told us we could do whatever we set our minds on. That stuck with me till now.

In addition to the barriers to deciding to get into STEM, there are additional challenges once you are in. Multiple times at university, male classmates will not include their female counterparts in their teams for a programming competition, assuming that female students are not as competent. I clearly remember the surprise of a male classmate during my Masters upon learning I could code well and handle myself well with solving programming problems. Or this answer from a manager at my first job saying “Women just cannot code”, as an answer to me questioning why I was the only female engineer there. 

This bias against women in STEM plays well into the “impostor syndrome” most humans have and stops us from going after opportunities thinking we are not good enough. I tackled that by building my confidence through expertise around the subjects that interest me, and going after every opportunity I could with the understanding that I may not be good at something now but with enough investment, I can become the best. I think that if you have mastery over a subject, then no one can bring you down, so you just focus on improving yourself.  And keep challenging yourself by going after tasks that seem too big or out of your league.

It is a proven fact that there is strong bias (usually unconscious) towards women in STEM. Collectively, we can only change that perspective by having more women in the field. So long as we persevere, and not give up no matter the obstacles, we are unstoppable.

What is your advice to budding women in STEM?

The one advice I cannot stress enough is: find something that genuinely interests you in STEM, and master that subject. We may feel like we are not good enough, but so does everyone. Fake it until you make it. 

My second piece of advice, one that I still have to remind myself of is: go after that job/university/program/opportunity you want even when you think you might not fit all the qualifications. Let others say no, but do not disqualify yourself from the get-go without trying. Rejection is part of the game. I have received so many rejection letters from universities, jobs, funding bodies, etc. I still do. But each rejection made my next application better. Ultimately every great achievement I have had is the fruit of many failures before that.

Finally, give back and help someone who is a few steps behind on their journey. You will meet and learn from wonderful people when you take advantage of outreach opportunities that will inevitably present themselves.

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