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Shaping a more inclusive future in tech

Dr. Angelica Lim with humanoid robot, “Pepper” and students in the Invent the Future enrichment program, 2018.
Dr. Angelica Lim with humanoid robot, “Pepper” and students in the Invent the Future enrichment program, 2018.

Two SFU professors are leading the way to build diversity and equity in STEM and STEM education. Drs. Angelica Lim and Lesley Shannon are two prominent researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) and computer engineering, respectively. Both are also recognized advocates for uplifting and encouraging women in computing science.

Their work has been generously supported by SFU alumnus and donor, Amyn Rajan and his wife Shein, who have given to many initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion in higher education and the tech industry at large. Angelica is the Rajan Family Scholar in Computing Science at SFU and Lesley held the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) for the BC/Yukon Region (2015-22), co-supported by Amyn’s former company, Simba Technologies and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Both Angelica and Lesley note that it is critical to have a diverse range of perspectives and experiences represented in their fields.

An accomplished engineer in non-traditional computer systems design, Lesley says “the work of computer and software engineers is largely invisible labour. Building these critical systems, accessible systems, it’s important not only to shine a light on the impact of that work, but also to show that accessibility matters. Building for accessibility benefits everyone.”

“AI needs to become more diverse and more equitable,” says Angelica. “Technologies for facial expression detection have racial bias but we know they weren't equipped to deal with diversity until we programmed them to. Data sets and the people that created them aren’t purposely racist—but if a data set isn’t diverse, neither is the AI it is derived from.”

Due in large part to the Rajan family’s generosity, Angelica and her team in the RosieLab are building diverse datasets on robot-human interaction and learning how to build robots that interact with and adapt to humans, including AI that can understand human emotions and meaning. Among the lab’s many projects, they developed interactive web and robot applications for Blackfoot language learning with Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn, a professor of Indigenous studies and archaeology.  

Angelica also leads the Invent the Future enrichment program for high school students, which builds community and provides mentorship to trans and cisgender women, non-binary and Two-Spirit students from Grades 9 through 12.

Lesley has been advising and mentoring with numerous initiatives since joining SFU in 2006. As an NSERC CWSE, she led Westcoast Women in Engineering Science and Technology (WWEST) and significantly increased the participation not only of women, but other underrepresented groups in STEM. Providing leadership, networking, and career development opportunities for women in engineering, she facilitated numerous collaborations—from podcasts and public lectures to white papers, and teaching resources.

Their app Tune Twister, for example, provides children in Grades 4 through 8 the chance to learn about the science of sound. Collaborating with SFU’s Science AL!VE program and Science World, they made access barrier-free for girls, under-served youth and Indigenous communities and developed a teacher’s toolkit for educators.

As technology becomes increasingly integral to daily life, there is a critical need for future developers and their innovations to reflect the diversity of our society. With the visionary support of Amyn and Shein Rajan, Drs. Angelical Lim and Lesley Shannon are addressing that need by making STEM education more equitable and empowering for the next generation of innovators.

This story is part of our summer 2023 edition of Engage, our magazine celebrating the impact of SFU’s donor community.
To read more stories, please visit the Engage landing page.