Words Of Wisdom From A Tech Activist Unicorn

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Danielle Olson. Photo via Twitter

Danielle Olson is getting her Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT. She’s also a black female activist, which in the worlds of tech and academia, makes her something of a unicorn. So what is it like being a minority of a minority at one of the most elite schools in the country?

Let’s start with the bathrooms.

Sexism can be built into the structure of a physical building, Olson says. For example, in some of the older buildings on MIT’s main campus, the women’s and men’s restrooms are on different floors. This is because the school used to be a men’s college, and there wasn’t such a need for women’s toilets. But it’s not so great if you are a woman and have to go far away to pee, a la Hidden Figures.

But the battle for belonging in a STEM-related academic world started way before Olsen got to MIT. “Traditional images that I had about what a computer scientist looked or acted like was someone [who] didn’t look or act like me,” Olson said. “If you were to ask me what is engineering when I was in third grade, I would’ve only thought of people  in yellow card hats, maybe making bridges and blueprints …my preconceived notion of [a scientist was] Bill Nye the science guy.”

As a nonscientist-guy, she didn’t think she would fit into the world of STEM. That is until a school counselor encouraged her to sign up for a program called “Girls Explore & Engineering.”

“This was an entire experience in which I was paired with a mentor who was also another woman of color who was in engineering,” she said “I was able to immerse myself in different hands-on experiments and projects. And that really was my catalyst for me getting excited about engineering.”

Danielle recently spoke to a team of young journalists and coders at Youth Radio’s headquarters in Oakland. Here are some highlights of that conversation:

Computers and technical devices actually reproduce discrimination and human bias. According to Olson, there is not much of diversity in engineering, which means there are not as many perspectives being processed in technical devices. For example, Polaroid made their cameras only considering how lighter skin tones would show up on film. Even more basic technology like the facial recognition systems doesn’t detect darker skin tones because they weren’t designed with people of color in mind. 

It’s OK to fail. “I actually got a D in my first mechanical engineering class my freshman year,” Olson said.  After that, she was discouraged but decided to switch her major to computer science, which she actually loved. Danielle has gone through failures and confusions, only to find her passion along the way doing something she loves. “I think it’s really important to not only share my successes but also my failures,” Olson said, “because I think that it’s really important to remember that the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried,” Olson says failure was actually was a turning point that helped her really fall in love with the field that she is in today.

You can be an engineer and an activist. Olson says she’s passionate about social change, and that being an engineer actually plays into that. “I think evolving as humans involves not only technological innovation but cultural innovation,” she says. “So if you think about all of the issues that we face as people in our communities today, we need to think about the ways that we could give voice to those that are not being well served by policies,” Olson says engineers could really create the world that we want to live in and that it’s up to us to really collaborate with other people and other perspectives in order to catalyze change for those who need it. For example, engineers could create ways where social media platforms could allow Black Lives Matter activists to connect. Similarly, engineers can help provide Wi-Fi in underdeveloped areas that don’t have an infrastructure which supports access.

Engineering and STEM don’t have to be boring.

Olson has helped develop a couple of games and apps to help social issues in fun, innovative ways. One of the projects she has worked on was a virtual reality game to help stop the cycle of violence. The game, called “The Enemy,” was created by Karim Ben Khelifa and Dr. Fox Harrell. In the game, you can ask any personal question to people who are in combat to get a taste of both sides of the conflict. “I actually went through the experience myself, and what was the most shocking to me that kind of raised the hairs on my skin, was the reality of looking into the eye of this person that you’ve never met before,” Olson said. “The media of virtual reality really blends itself to really feeling more connected to the ‘other’.” Danielle has done lots of things to help improve her community and promote equality through her engineering skills.

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