Women in tech: Ekaterina Kochmar, assistant professor at MBZUAI Women in tech: Ekaterina Kochmar, assistant professor at MBZUAI
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Women in tech: Ekaterina Kochmar, assistant professor at MBZUAI

Women in tech: Ekaterina Kochmar, assistant professor at MBZUAI

The best thing about being a woman in STEM is that you can contribute with a different perspective

Women in tech

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

I was originally interested in languages and linguistics but quickly realised technology can help me to work in this area much more successfully.

I’m very passionate about research as it is the best way to introduce and incorporate the ideas we have as a great society of scholars and academics.

We want to implement them and make them work in real life. That is what drives me, and that’s what inspires and encourages me to do more research.

What is the best thing about being a woman in STEM?

The best thing about being a woman in STEM is that you can contribute with a different perspective. It’s very valuable to bring different perspectives on how the technology works, how artificial intelligence works – and it’s not just about being a woman or a man – it’s about looking at these things from different angles.

What would be your message to inspire the next generation of women in tech?

My best advice for women starting in this field is to pursue your dreams, to stay focused, to stay determined, to believe in themselves, and to remember that setbacks happen to everyone.

It’s more about what you would like to do with your life. For example, if STEM subjects and AI pique your interest, I’d encourage you to work in this area. They’re very interesting dynamic areas. So just stay determined and do your best.

How can AI help make education more accessible for women around the world?

Korbit AI’s main goal is to democratise education by using AI methods to help make education available to people on a global scale. Unfortunately, high-quality education is not accessible to many people around the world, including school-age children, and we know that girls can be affected more severely in some areas.

AI opens the door to those living in remote areas, school children who cannot afford to go to school, or those who can’t access the traditional school system. Devices and internet access are much more widely spread these days – more so than high-quality state schools or university education.

And not only women it can benefit. It can be redefined to help people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or some other difficulties. Also, by reducing the pressure and stress in the classroom environment for students who are shy or lack the confidence to speak up. They may not be brave enough to ask questions and so various technologies personalised for them may work better.

How do you see AI-assisted education fitting in with traditional classroom teaching?

The technology is already at the level where we can use it to provide people with high-quality education. The time is ripe as people’s attitudes towards technology are changing all the time, and many more countries have accessible internet and devices which is the basis for such technology being implemented.

The field of AI in education is still a relatively young one. We know that we have reached the point where we can bring all this effort together and now, one of the major challenges is installing the right framework. Researchers all over the world are working on this at the moment.

ChatGPT is a good example of where the technology has reached the point where it can basically provide us with a lot of material, but we need to understand how to integrate it properly into a high-quality educational process, make sure that it doesn’t mislead students, and provides them with factual and correct advice. We don’t want to rewrite history!

The best way we can approach education is with human one-on-one tutoring, but it is impossible to provide everyone with such a tutor. With AI tutors, we are trying to improve the way that education works for everyone, and make it really personalized so that the educational needs of every student can be addressed.

I strongly believe that AI should help teachers, should help students, and should seamlessly be integrated in the learning process. It shouldn’t replace teachers. We know that AI has complementary strengths with teachers. And the way I see the future of education is that it will be a hybrid system in which certain tasks can be offloaded to AI, while teachers can then focus on more interesting, more challenging tasks and questions to discuss with the students. That way the technology really benefits everyone. A good example here is the process of marking which usually is quite standard and takes a lot of time for teachers.

Lastly, what barriers have you faced as a young female academic?

Academia in general is very competitive; there’s so many barriers. I remember the first time I tried to publish a paper; it didn’t get accepted. I was on the verge of, “Am I going to do this, or will I just quit right now?” This was my very first experience during my Ph.D. of publishing a paper. That sets you back a bit.

People you don’t know may be quite critical of your work and you can’t respond to them because your papers are reviewed blindly. This may disappoint quite a lot. This led me to persevere. If you’re determined that’s what you want to do, you will need to overcome these barriers all the time. Every time you apply for research grants, for instance, or write a paper that you will have to defend, you’re going to have to be determined because there will be setbacks and there will be failures.

Recently, a professor who is a high achiever in his field published a post about all the grants and jobs he didn’t get, all the papers that didn’t get accepted and were rejected from one venue, but then resubmitted and accepted at another and awarded best paper. It goes to show that it’s more about determination and self-belief. It’s important to remember that other people actually struggle with similar things but rarely talk about them or publicise them.

Ekaterina Kochmar is the assistant professor of natural language processing (NLP), Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence and chief scientific officer at Korbit AI.

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