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Two Baskin Engineering graduate students awarded inaugural Fellowship for Anti-Racism Research

Two doctoral students in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering — Yatong Chen and Carlos Isaac Espinosa Ramirez — are the first ever recipients of the Baskin School of Engineering Fellowship for Anti-Racism Research (FARR). Both students will receive funding to pursue a summer research project that explores innovative ways to fight racism and bias in technology and engineering.

Though this is the first year FARR has been offered, the program adds to Baskin Engineering’s ongoing efforts to create a diverse and inclusive research and teaching environment that advances fairness, equity, and anti-racism in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“I’m excited that we are bringing research excellence into our initiatives. We have so many wonderful students who are interested in tech bias. One way to create change is through research, and I’m happy that we can support our students in this endeavor,” said Baskin Engineering’s Carmen Robinson, director of student excellence, engagement, and inclusion and director of the MESA Engineering Program.

Other diversity and inclusion efforts underway at Baskin Engineering include Diverse Voices — a professional speaker series spotlighting tech industry leaders and alumni who encourage individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue STEM education and careers — and multiple mentorship programs that aim to increase student diversity in STEM majors and foster community and academic excellence.

Eliminating bias in machine learning

Yatong Chen
Yatong Chen

Today, many decision-making processes have been automated and rely on machine-learning models to inform — or even arrive at — a final decision. Examples include job and loan application systems, many of which are driven by artificial rather than human intelligence. However, the machine-learning models that underlie these decision-making tools are prone to being “gamed” when applicants respond dishonestly to obtain favorable outcomes. This can result in decisions that increase disparities among historically underrepresented populations, eliciting concerns about the fairness of using machine learning to make decisions that affect people’s lives.

To address this problem, Chen will use her summer fellowship to explore ethics in machine learning. Under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Yang Liu, Chen will research the biases that currently plague these machine-learning models and use this information to develop algorithms that are fair, accountable, transparent, and equally incentivize improvements from different individuals from different subpopulations.

“As a computer scientist who has experienced racism, I feel an obligation to use my expertise to fight discrimination,” said Chen.

After developing new, bias-free algorithms, Chen is interested in studying how fairness constraints in machine-learning models affect different racial groups over time. The data she gathers will help her refine the models and develop unbiased applications for the field of artificial intelligence, which Chen hopes will be widely adopted.

Eradicating toxic language and furthering collaboration in online forums

Individuals from underrepresented groups often find that STEM communities are not truly inclusive. This extends to online forums dedicated to sharing and discussing open source software tools, which often play a central role in science and engineering research projects. According to Espinosa, these forums are saturated with discriminatory and hostile comments made by members.

Carlo Isaac Espinosa Ramirez
Carlo Isaac Espinosa Ramirez

“An open source software community can make or break a project. Seeing toxic comments can discourage someone and set a negative tone for the project. It’s important to find ways to promote diversity and inclusion to retain a sense of belonging in the community, increase participation, and push a project towards success,” said Espinosa, whose summer project focuses on creating more diverse and inclusive open source software communities.

With mentorship from Stephanie Lieggi, assistant director for the Center for Research in Open Source Software (CROSS), Espinosa will spend the summer investigating different tools, methodologies, and policies that can be applied within open source software communities to deter discrimination and hostility and increase member participation and collaboration.

Espinosa noticed a reduction in discriminatory comments in open source software communities that introduced codes of conduct. He hopes to enact similar policies as part of his current project, Open Source Autonomous Vehicle Controller (OSAVC), which aims to create an advanced computer board for the multipilot platform in an autonomous vehicle to aid in more intelligent decision making. If successful, he hopes other projects will be inspired by his lead and adopt similar practices.

Shaping a future of anti-racist, anti-biased technology and engineering

This year’s FARR fellows will be funded through September 14, 2021. Both Chen and Espinosa will present their research findings publicly during the Baskin School of Engineering 25th anniversary celebration in 2022.

“These students are the future of tech, and when they are armed with empirical evidence, they will become system breakers and innovators in their discipline. I am looking forward to seeing what our inaugural fellows will find,” said Robinson.

FARR will continue to be offered annually to two Baskin Engineering students who are interested in pursuing a summer research project. The fellowship is open to all declared Baskin Engineering undergraduate and graduate students, including undergraduates pursuing engineering minors. Students may apply individually, or in teams of up to three students.