Ndapa Nakashole is on a mission to teach machines to understand human language

    Learn about Ndapa Nakashole’s journey from growing up in Namibia to becoming a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Computer Science at University of California, San Diego.

  • By Awa Dieng , Managing Editor
  • September 1, 2020
  • In Inspire

Deemed the "4th revolution", Artificial Intelligence (AI) is promising to change the world, from enabling autonomous driving to facilitating the invention of new medical diagnostic tools. A long standing frontier in building intelligent machines has been Natural Language Understanding - a subfield of AI that studies how to build agents that can comprehend language and converse like humans. Ndapa Nakashole, a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Computer Science at University of California, San Diego, is tackling this challenging problem. In a field riddled with a lack of diversity, Ndapa is one of the few Black women advancing AI research.

Ndapa Nakashole is an established researcher in the Natural Language Processing (NLP) community. Her research is consistently published at the top conferences in her field. Among other things, her work has been recognized by a Best paper runner-up at EMNLP 2012 (one of the top publication venues in NLP). Notably, her doctoral thesis was awarded the Otto Hahn Medal by the Max Planck Society, a yearly dissertation award which recognizes outstanding contributions from junior researchers.

Ndapa Nakashole’s journey from Namibia, a small country of roughly 2.5 million people in Southern Africa, to a tenure-track professorship at one of the world leading Computer Science departments is one riddled with challenges, perseverance, and brilliance. We had a chance to sit with her to learn more about her journey, the important lessons she learned along the way, and advice she has for the African youth.

Being a Computer Scientist endows you with the tools and freedom to create things with nothing but a keyboard.

Picture: Ndapa Nakashole.

A lot of talented young Africans don’t realize their full potential because of so many obstacles. Reach out to people and organizations that might have the resources to help achieve your dreams, both in your country and abroad. When you try this often enough, something will work out.


TAIK: Thank you for giving us an interview. Can you tell our readers what your current occupation is and what your day-to-day at work is like?

Ndapa Nakashole: I am an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego, where I have been since January 2017. My work involves teaching, research, and mentoring students. On any given day, I do a combination of some, or all of the above.

What excites you most about your work?

Doing Computer Science (CS) in an academic setting is incredibly satisfying. I get to write code, do research, teach, and be surrounded by so many fascinating minds, young and old. Being a Computer Scientist endows you with the tools and freedom to create things with nothing but a keyboard.

As an Assistant professor of Computer Science, what drew you to pursue a career in Computer Science?

I took a class in high school called "Computer Practice", we wrote little programs in Pascal. I found it fascinating that one could solve puzzles and problems with a little bit of code. In 12th grade, when it was time to send out college applications, one of my Science teachers asked which major I was applying for. He was disappointed to learn that I had picked CS, and advised I choose something ‘serious’. CS was still relatively unknown in northern Namibia, where I attended high school. I am glad I followed my heart.

Can you tell us more about your education background?

For primary school, and high school, I went to school in northern Namibia. Then I traveled south to attend college at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, where I graduated with a Bsc, and later an Msc in Computer Science. I then completed my PhD at Saarland University and the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany. After that, I spent a few years as a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA.

Your educational background is quite diverse. Have you encountered any language barriers during your studies? How did you overcome them?

When I started school as a kid, Namibia had just won independence from Apartheid South Africa, and the Namibian government decided to switch from Afrikaans to English as the language of instruction in schools. In northern Namibia, the teachers were learning English while trying to use it as a language of instruction. I cannot fault them, but often they just taught in our native language since it made life easier for them. For high school, I went to a boarding school that was founded by a Finnish missionary in a nearby village. Many teachers there were foreigners, some of them were volunteers, including Americans with the Peace Corps organization. Going from mostly being taught in my native language all through primary school, to a high school where everything was in English was non-trivial. But my English improved in high school, and in college as well.

Did you encounter financial challenges? How did you pay for your studies?

For my first year of undergraduate studies, I got a student loan from the Namibian government. From my second year of undergraduate all the way up to my PhD, I was incredibly lucky to secure corporate bursaries, educational foundations scholarships, and fellowships, for which I am eternally grateful.

How was it like growing up?

I grew up in a subsistence farming community in northern Namibia. It’s a sparsely populated community, and the farms are spread out. So it’s a quiet and peaceful way to grow up (minus the farm work, which I didn’t quite enjoy).

Any final words for young Africans reading this?

A lot of talented young Africans don’t realize their full potential because of so many obstacles. Reach out to people and organizations that might have the resources to help achieve your dreams, both in your country and abroad. When you try this often enough, something will work out.