Ho-Am Prize & Lim Mi-Sook Scholarship (임미숙 장학금) at KAIST

NOTE: this post is the third part of the three-post series. see here to learn about the Ho-Am Prize in Engineering I just was just awarded with.

  1. Ho-Am Prize & Scholarship for Macademia at Aalto University
  2. Ho-Am Prize & 백규고전학술상 (Baek-Gyu Scholarly Award for Classics)
  3. Ho-Am Prize & Lim Mi-Sook Scholarhip (임미숙 장학금) at KAIST

Lim Mi-Sook Scholarship 임미숙 장학금

i graduated from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) with the Bachelor in Science (B.Sc.) degree. i majored in computer science which is the subject i’ve never left so far, having become a professor of computer science (and data science) in 2015. although my undergraduate years in terms of education was closer to failure than success (which is extremely visible on my transcript,) i thoroughly enjoyed my days at KAIST and have fond memory of the years I spent there.

although the whole field, including myself, has become so much more aware of the issue of gender imbalance in computer science in recent years, it was already super-clear that there was this issue in computer science when i was in my undergraduate years. my memory is definitely failing me, but i recall there were less than five if not four females students out of approximately 60-70 students in my cohort. of course, the awareness did not mean that i felt any issue with it nor was compelled to do something about it. it just felt only natural back then that boys majored computer science and girls in biology (yes, i’m simplifying it quite a bit here, but this is how it seemed to me back then.)

perhaps this is precisely what my mom and others in the family felt back when i was born. before i was born, my mom used to be a teacher in a (junior) high school, teaching Korean. my mom and dad graduated from the same university for their undergraduate degree, after which my mom became a teacher and my dad decided to pursue higher degrees, eventually becoming a professor of korean literature. clearly both of them had the same level of education up until a certain point, but at that point, mom gave up on her career to raise me and my younger brother who was born less than 2 years after i was born. again, i’m sure this was the choice that was only natural back then.

unfortunately it’s about 20 years since i started my undergrad years at KAIST, and the issue of gender balance in computer science hasn’t gotten any better. in fact, this issue, which i didn’t even realize existed back then, turned out to be just a tip of the iceberg. the field of computer science, or perhaps more narrowly machine learning, is riddled with imbalances; gender imbalance, geographical imbalances (over-representation of north america, europe and east asia over other parts of the world), imbalance across races (6 black researchers out of more than 5,000 attendees of NeurIPS 2017, noticed by Timnit Gebru), and many more.

these issues are somehow “discovered” each day, but the truth is that we are barely freeing ourselves from the social constructs that have blinded us or have convinced us that these imbalances are only natural. this is just like how i never thought it was an issue that all boys majored in computer science while all girls majored in biology when i was in my sophomore year. this is just like why my mom quit her job to raise me and my brother more than 35 years ago, which i’m sure no one questioned then.

i don’t have any solution to this issue of social blindness, but one thing i have become aware of is that one cannot see what is not there for them to see. when i was one of 90% or more of the boys who majored in computer science 18 or so years ago, i couldn’t see the problem. when i was one of 90% or so of the non-black, male researchers attending ICML and NeurIPS over many years, i couldn’t see the problem. i mean i was having beer, tequila, etc. non-stop together with Yann Dauphin, but i couldn’t see this near-complete lack of black researchers as a troubling trend at all. i only started to see these problems of equal access, equity, etc. only when i started to see people raising these issues and bringing these issues to my attention. in other words, the one remedy i know and have experienced myself is to create a diverse environment in which each individual can see and interact with diverse individuals and hear their stories.

so, as a small effort toward helping build such diverse environments, i have decided to donate approximately ₩100,000,000 KRW (≈ \$91,000 USD) to the Department of Computer Science, School of Computing at KAIST to create a small scholarship named after my mom (Lim Mi-Sook 임미숙) that will provide a small amount of supplement (≈ \$900) each to a small group of female students who major in computer science, at the beginning of each semester, until the fund runs out. it’s not a lot, but it never hurts to have some extra allowance at the beginning of each semester. they might use it for buying a new iPad for either taking better notes in their classes or watching Netflix more comfortably. they might use it to hang out with their friends and have some nice meals. they might use it to pay for their hobbies. however they spend it, i only hope this would encourage them to continue their study in computer science and to encourage others to join computer science in the future, thereby contributing toward building a more diverse community of computer scientists (so that my little niece will eventually want to study computer science and be a computer scientist.) furthermore, i wish this will help us, including myself, more easily and readily see and break ourselves free from these social constructs/biases that unfairly disadvantage and harm subsets of population.

finally, here’s why i named it after my mom: although i structured this scholarship to be from my mom, this won’t let me nor my mom answer how her career would’ve been had she not given up on it when i was born. it however will make all of us think more about the burden of raising children that is placed often disproportionately on mothers and how it should be better distributed among parents, relatives and society, in order to ensure and maximize equity in education, and career development and advances.


† more and more organizations and initiatives are founded to address these challenges, including Women in Machine Learning, Black in AI, etc. (see e.g. the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion page of ICLR’21.) these are organizations that make me proud to be a part of this research community.

∘ oh, and i asked the department to arrange a lunch between my parents and these students each semester. i think my parents will love talking with them, and i hope the students will also enjoy the lunch.

⊚ see my earlier post <Giving thanks: Samsung AI Researcher of the Year Award and Donation to Mila> for more of my thoughts on this.

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