Meet Nigerian Temiloluwa O. Prioleau, the first Black woman tenure-track faculty in Computer Science in the Ivy League

    Learn about Temiloluwa O. Prioleau’s journey from growing up in Nigeria to becoming a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College, one of the eight Ivy League schools in the United States.

  • By Adji B. Dieng , Editor-in-Chief
  • October 14, 2020
  • In Inspire

All mountains are surmountable simply by taking one step at a time.

Temiloluwa O. Prioleau did not study medicine, but she is making strides in advancing healthcare through her research in academia. Temiloluwa’s research is at the intersection of data science and healthcare. She leverages data from mobile and wearable devices to gain insights into the factors influencing people’s health, and devises methods to address treatment needs for patients. From developing personalized tools to improve diabetes self-management to leveraging data to gain insights on COVID-19, Temiloluwa’s research has the potential to impact millions of people around the world.

Temiloluwa O. Prioleau is currently a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College, a private Ivy League research university in New Hampshire, in the U.S. established 250 years ago. She is one of the very few Black women faculty in a Computer Science department in the United States. In fact, when she joined Dartmouth College in January 2019, she became the first Black woman tenure-track faculty in Computer Science in the entire Ivy League, an elite American education system founded in 1954 and comprising eight private universities.

Temiloluwa O. Prioleau grew up in Nigeria, one of the largest economies and most populous countries in Africa. She found her passion for engineering from admiring her dad, who was an electrical engineer. Learn more about what motivates her, her journey from Nigeria to Dartmouth, and the important lessons she has learned along the way.

It doesn't matter how you learn, whether it be a concept or skill, what matters is that you learn even if it takes many tries.

Picture: Temiloluwa O. Prioleau wearing a continuous glucose monitor for research-related data collection.

TAIK: We are very excited to interview you. Thank you for your time. Can you tell our readers what your current occupation is and what a day at work is like for you?

Temiloluwa O. Prioleau: I am an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College, a private Ivy League research university in New Hampshire, in the U.S. My day-to-day is dynamic and depends a lot on the academic term. I typically spend my day learning what's new in my research field, meeting with students, brainstorming on current or future projects, preparing course materials, teaching, grading, reading and writing emails, writing research papers, and writing grants applications.

Can you go a little bit in detail about your research? What questions are you interested in solving?

My research is in applied data science. I study how data can be used in creative ways to inform health decisions. This includes using mobile and wearable systems as a source of data collection then analyzing and drawing insights from such data to guide health-related decisions. Currently, I am working on projects concerning diabetes and COVID-19. You can find more details on my research website www.ah-lab.cs.dartmouth.edu

Health is a very important topic. What drew you to work at the intersection of health and technology? What excites you most about it?

I am fascinated by opportunities for technology in health. This drew me to using technology and data in various health applications. Good health is fundamental to living a fruitful life, and although I don't contribute to people's health as a doctor, a nurse or a clinical personnel, I contribute with technology-based solutions.

The most exciting part of what I do is that it has a direct impact on people. I get to mentor students and contribute to shaping their future paths. I also get to develop and contribute to technology that can improve people's health. These are the things that motivate me.

Talking about impact, how has your presence at an Ivy League institution such as Dartmouth impacted that institution?

Given that I am relatively new to Dartmouth College, I am still learning ways that my presence will impact the institution. However, one thing that I have noticed is that I am an important resource for women and people of color in engineering and computer science.

There is a reason for that. There are very few Black faculty in STEM in academia. In fact, we did our research and you happen to be the first Black woman tenure-track faculty in Computer Science in the entire Ivy League. Why do you think it is important to have Black women in academia?

Role models are critical for anyone, including Black women in STEM in academia. I never imagined myself in academia until I saw and talked to others like me who shared their journeys with me.

Who were your career role models growing up, if any?

My dad was my primary career role model. He was an Electrical Engineer and I got to see some of his work during the years that he ran his business from his home office located on our compound in Lagos, Nigeria. This was my inspiration to become an Electrical Engineer, although my journey in the field has differed a lot from his.

Let’s talk about your journey. How was it like growing up?

I spent the early years of my life growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. I went to primary school not too far from where my family lived so I walked to school. After that I attended a boarding school, from which I have many great memories and friends. I moved to the United States when I was in 11th grade. The transition to the U.S. came with several challenges.

Can you tell us about those challenges?

One of the hurdles that I have and continue to encounter is being a minority in various circles in my field, this includes being a young Black woman in male-dominated spaces. This made it particularly difficult for me to find role models.

Have you encountered language barriers?

I have not encountered language barriers as I grew up speaking english. However, when I initially moved to the U.S., I encountered 'accent barriers’, which included being asked to repeat myself often because I spoke "differently". It took some time for me to get more confident and realize that it doesn't matter if I speak differently.

You moved to the U.S. in 11th grade. What was your academic journey in the U.S.?

I finished high school in Texas and attended college also in Texas. All of my training from undergraduate to Ph.D. was in electrical engineering. I got my bachelor's degree at The University of Texas at Austin and completed my Masters and Ph.D. at Georgia Institute of Technology. It’s been a learning experience all through but I am grateful for the journey.

Studying in the U.S. can be very expensive. How did you pay for your studies?

In my first year of undergraduate, I used a mix of financial aid and academic loans. During that year, I applied for more than ten scholarships. By my second year I had received a few scholarships that covered a significant portion of my studies. I also worked as a Resident Assistant from my 2nd to 4th year to pay for housing. This was not only a source of income but also a great leadership training for me. As a graduate student I also applied for many scholarships during my first year and secured a few, including the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship which covered my studies.

Did you know, growing up, that you wanted to pursue science?

Yes, I wanted to be an engineer because my dad was an engineer. However, I did not know that I wanted to get a Ph.D. and become a professor.

What made you pursue a PhD?

I chose to pursue a Ph.D. because I got glimpses of a field that I wanted to learn more about and become an expert in. One of my favorite classes was called Biomedical Instrumentation, which I took in my 4th year as an undergraduate student. This was my first introduction to the field of technology in healthcare.

How about academia?

I chose academia because I learned that through research I could push the boundaries more in academia than I could in industry. In academia I am free to ask any questions that I think are important or potentially beneficial.

What are important lessons you've learned on your way to where you are now in your career?

Many important lessons stand out to me. First, do not underestimate yourself. I have done and am doing more things than I ever thought I was capable of. Second, understand that failure is part of the journey. We often hear about people's successes but not so much about their failures. Many prominent people have had their own share of failures, which were necessary to their success. Third, persist. All mountains are surmountable simply by taking one step at a time. I believe the main thing that has paid off in my journey is persistence. Finally, ask for help. I learned early in my academic journey not to be afraid to ask for help. It doesn't matter how you learn whether it be a concept or skill, what matters is that you learn even if it takes many tries.

Thank you for taking time to answer our questions. Let’s end this interview with you telling our readers what you love most about Nigeria, your country of origin.

I love the languages, the culture, the music, the food, the style of dressing, the morals, and the people in general.