Dr. Jwala Dhamala is a Research Scientist at Amazon, where she is working on research around fairness, explainability and robustness in Artificial Intelligence(AI) systems. Using her expertise in machine learning and deep learning, she wants to develop AI systems that are fair, equitable and accessible to all population groups.
Jwala is determined to contribute to LGBTQ issues, mental health issues, and fairness towards historically disadvantaged population groups. Apart from that, she likes working out, mindfulness meditation, playing frisbee, biking, cooking, and video games for fun.
Jwala remembers being an introverted, sharp, and curious kid who always secured one of the top ranks since her childhood. Making the most out of her introverted nature, she started exploring her interest and passion. Jwala found that she enjoyed solving logical and critical problems, puzzles, and Mathematics. She developed a habit of self-studying, analyzing the problem from different angles, and finding an efficient solution.
“Little shifts in habits can project a huge difference. Spare some time for self-exploration”.
Jwala is inspired by her mom, who took on tasks that men typically handled in the Nepali society, for instance, making important family decisions, big purchases, speaking out, and working on physically challenging tasks. She also noticed that women like her mom, who took on non-traditional responsibilities, were criticized heavily by the community.
“Women and other underprivileged people face many obstacles even when they are equally capable,” says Jwala, who faced challenges due to existing gender biases during her school and college life. From her classmates arguing on girls having no brain to teachers making fun of the projects led by girls teams at her engineering college and relatives continually reminding her to focus on housework, she confronted plenty of people deterring her abilities.
“While visiting different colleges for mock tests during Engineering Exam preparation at PEA, one college announced that the topper of the examination would win a computer, and the girl topper would win a printer. It implied that the overall topper was going to be a boy. Most people even talked about this as a courtesy to female students, although Sudha Lohani and Rojina Adhikary had scored the highest in the previous entrance examinations.”
Jwala scored the highest in the exam and took home the computer. She was happy that she topped this examination, but she was more proud of proving a point against those who undermine girls’ abilities as engineers.
“Our society has unconsciously naturalized the biases against minorities. It is not acceptable, and we have the power to break past them with our actions. How many of us does it take to break the existing stereotypes against us? We should actively talk about gender biases at home, in schools, society, and break this pattern. The biases against minorities are not fair. They are not normal, and such biases are detrimental to both young girls and boys.”
As a woman in technology, Jwala is a winner. She accomplished many things right after graduating with a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering from Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus. She worked at Yomari Nepal Pvt. Ltd. She got an opportunity to work in Yomari’s main office in the USA. She would have the opportunity to interact with the clients directly and contribute to shaping Yomari’s business. Still, she declined the offer to pursue a Ph.D. in Computing and Information Sciences from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Ph.D., as she recalls, was her most challenging phase, where she saw the most growth in herself. During her Ph.D., she worked on a research problem to combine data-driven models built with machine/deep learning with a physics-based simulation model of cardiac electrophysiology. She published more than seven first-authored papers in top-tier conferences and journals. She was nominated twice for the young scientist award at the Medical Image Computing and Computer-Assisted Intervention Society (MICCAI).
During her Ph.D., Jwala also did an internship at Philips Research, and her work on multivariate time-series signal similarity assessment was published at the NeurIPS ML4H workshop. She also received several travel grants and scholarships, including Machine Learning for Health Workshop Travel Grant 2018, Woman in Machine Learning Workshop Travel Grant, MICCAI Travel Award, and IPMI Scholarship for Junior Scientists. She also organized a hackathon with students from different universities and presented at the Woman in Computing pre-orientation program at RIT university.
Jwala’s obstinacy to follow her passion for physics, maths, and computer science, despite what the world said, was the foundation of her success. She found a field based on her interest and had decided to enroll in an engineering college.
“ I remember myself walking directly from the examination center to PEA after the final exams of 12th grade, negotiating an admission fee, and enrolling in PEA. I was certain my parents would support it, and that was enough”. She ignored the negative influences and leaned towards the positive ones, and never stopped believing in herself.
While some tech-enthusiasts find it overwhelming to cope with evolving technology, Jwala gets exhilarated by new challenges and tools to solve problems more efficiently.
“The problem you are dedicated to solving attracts the solution, and the solution attracts technology. I see programming languages, frameworks, and AI as a tool to solve a problem. Don’t get dissuaded; just focus on your goal, and you will get engrossed by the tools needed to accomplish it.”
Currently, Jwala is working as a Research Scientist at Amazon. She loves her work and believes that she can make an impact on the world with her work. She firmly believes that technology can uplift humanity, and her explications to solve issues for a better world vouch for her beliefs.
“Tech requires people from different diversities to get different perspectives. Girls and minorities are not getting access to enough opportunities that inspire them to pursue a tech career. They cannot be forced to be passionate about Tech, but they must be given equal opportunities to explore different careers and need appealing examples to make it intriguing.”
Jwala added, “Story series like this inspires them to consider a career in Tech, it provides them their role models. Higher the representation, higher the inclusive technologies!”
Jwala’s quest for the value of life and exploration of the world never ends. She equally prioritized her personal growth along with professional development. She learned several other skills, including managing finances, cooking cuisines from various countries, driving, ice skating, and yoga, to name a few. She also traveled to more than five countries outside the USA.
Reflecting on the journey, Jwala emphasizes the power of persistence. She recalls getting criticized, rejections, being laughed at, not getting recognized for her work, and was subjected to a whole new category of societal expectations. She remembers her initial challenges in adapting to the USA’s culture and how staying away from her family had left her bereft. However, her tenacity to move forward by leaning toward the positive influences despite having many challenges helped her become who she is today.
“I understood that I should not let these expectations or criticisms sway me from my original values and goals in life. I have continued to focus on people who critique my work for the right reasons. My suggestion is that your life is precious, build up your self-confidence, and get ready to tackle unsupportive people and stereotypical ideologies. It is important not to get disheartened by negative experiences; grip your dreams harder. Be friends with your opposite gender; don’t make them your competitor. Together we have a lot to learn and grow.”
Jwala’s journey has proven that the choice is always yours. Whatever society may claim, it can’t control you. Also, we do not always need to have a plan before-hand to succeed in life. We only need to give 100% at what we are passionate about, and success will follow. Many people will value your skills regardless of your gender, caste, or race.
If you have been hearing that “Tech is not for women,” we hope Jwala’s story manifests to prove how wrong that is.
This article was written by Manwi Acharya, the Treasurer of Nepali Women in Computing for Nepali Women in Computing — CELEBRATE.