Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Volunteer work helps girls find passion for AI


Photo by Vanessa Loring (Pexels)

Jie Mei has always been passionate about understanding how the brain works. Her interest in computer science, artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience was driven by her own curiosity.

“From an early age, I was really intrigued by the variety of people who think differently, act differently,” said Mei, a BrainsCAN postdoctoral fellow studying AI models of the brain. “I found if you want to know how your mind works, the best way of doing that is to learn the biology and building blocks of the brain, and translate them into a model and see how it learns.”

As part of Yalda Mohsenzadeh’s lab at Western University, Mei is working on AI models of neuromodulation to better understand and study the brain. With her experience and passion for the field, she’s hoping to inspire the next generation of young girls in AI and neuroscience.

Through her work as a researcher and educator, Mei is helping change the landscape in a profession that’s been traditionally dominated by men.

Data from Statistics Canada show in 2019, only 28 per cent of women are enrolled in mathematics, computer and information sciences in Canadian universities and colleges – and far less women are going on to establish a career in these fields of research. Beyond academia, women account for only 22 per cent of professionals in the AI sector, according to the United Nations.

To give women and girls the opportunity to fully participate in science-related programs, United Nations has identified Feb. 11 as International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day recognizes the role women and girls play in science, technology, engineering and math, while celebrating the crucial contributions they make to these fields. The hope is to give young girls the opportunity to find their passion and follow their dreams.

Jie Mei

Jie Mei, BrainsCAN Postdoctoral Fellow

For Mei, her passion to understand the brain drove her desire to continue learning about neuroscience and AI.

“I didn’t have women role models when I was a kid,” she said. “And I had a bumpy road when I first entered research.” Now she wants to help pave a smoother path for young girls to pursue a career in science, particularly in AI.

The opportunity to do that came in 2020, when she received a message from Alicia Heraz, CEO of emotional analytics firm Emaww and chief scientist at the Brain Mining Lab, about volunteering for a program called CS01.io to teach AI to Canadian girls.

“There are many reasons why we should teach girls AI,” said Mei, who designed and ran a CS01.io Wai EDUCATE course on deep learning and the brain. “This program helps girls know that they’re not alone in their interests.”

Created by Heraz, CS01.io was originally launched to help college students understand coding. Since early 2020, it has expanded to become a portal where teens meet with computer scientists to learn programming, scripting and data mining. CS01.io also powers the Wai EDUCATE initiative (by Women in AI Canada) to introduce AI to a selected group of girls for free.

“We introduce AI to girls between 13-15 years to make them think about adding AI as an option for their professional career,” said Heraz. “I see a growing need to build a community of talented computer scientists to be the big brothers and sisters of the future generation of technology leaders.”

Ten girls went through the CS01.io Wai EDUCATE program in 2021, where Mei hosted short learning sessions and taught AI-related topics, including artificial neural networks. She hopes her part in the program will help young women find a place in AI and neuroscience.

“For girls who would like to become a scientist one day, the motivation is naturally their curiosity,” said Mei. “For girls who want to change the world, who have this ambition to make the world a better place, I believe that AI is the way to go.”

CS01.io is a free program for Canadian girls aged 13-15. Applications for the 2022 summer Women in AI education program open soon. For more information, visit https://cs01.io/girls.