Nneka Okolo is an outstanding woman in science. An indigene of Nigeria, Nneka earned a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at the University of Benin, Nigeria. Curious about the applications of her knowledge in the real world and with a profound interest in technology, Nneka explored the realms of computer programming. Still, on these grounds, she accepted an offer to pursue a Masters in Mathematical Sciences, Machine Learning (ML) specialization at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Senegal.
Following the first 10 months of rigorous study and personal development, Nneka got recruited as a research intern at the Group for Research in Decision Analysis (GERAD), Canada. During this period, she led research on the application of Reinforcement Learning (RL) in solving a multi-period planning problem. Nneka is creative and resolute. She aspires to develop Machine Learning based tools to improve industrial workflow and make knowledgeable scientific contributions to her field of interest — Machine Learning. To achieve this, she is keen on acquiring the right knowledge and expertise.
Why did you get into STEM?
I got into STEM because I was comfortable with math. I remember that during my undergraduate studies I always found the logic behind theorems, propositions and proofs fascinating. This habit of reading between the lines has proven useful in other areas of study too.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
I pride myself on being resolute. The greatest consequential achievement so far is working on my master’s thesis. The thesis topic followed from a research internship executed at the GERAD Research Institute in Canada from which I obtained international research experience. Working on this project exposed me to Reinforcement Learning, a sub-field of Machine Learning previously unknown to me. It provided an avenue for accomplishing personal and academic goals which span the development of self-reliability skills, improved programming skills and assimilation ability. The results evidence months of diligence, careful experimentation and curiosity.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
While the gender imbalance is obvious, I only recently learned of the binary nature of STEM. Indeed, before now, I did not think the gender of the individual who was addressing the audience at some brainstorming session or meeting would matter. However, from experience, this information influences the level of expectation from the speaker. Simply put, there is little or no expectation from women as compared to their male counterpart especially in STEM-related professions and activities. Although seemingly trivial, such occurrence is demotivating.
I overcame this challenge by being self-motivated. Self-motivation is the ability to remain decisive irrespective of negative influence and drawbacks. While this ability sometimes comes naturally, if there already exists an interest not attached to temporary rewards and appraisals, it could also be learned. Self-motivation is truly an important skill.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
I advise budding women in science to own themselves and focus on their circle of influence. For example, working on their grades, developing interpersonal skills and nurturing their creativity or talents. Conclusively, I’ll refer to a genderless quote that says, “The only thing standing between you and your goals is you”.