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Nov. 6, 2023

Graduate voice: Turning first-generation barriers into historic firsts

This story has been updated.

Jamell Dacon earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science and engineering from Michigan State University in 2020 and 2023, respectively. In September 2023, Dacon became an assistant professor in computer science at Morgan State University, a historically Black research university in Baltimore, Maryland.

Jamell Dacon wearing a cap and gown in front of the Spartan Stadium.As a child, my fascination with numbers and how computer programs worked was a constant source of wonder. However, it wasn’t until I turned 15 and received my first laptop that this curiosity indeed took root. It marked the beginning of my journey into the world of computer science and mathematics.

In January 2014, I received a scholarship to attend Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. This opportunity required me to leave my home in Trinidad and Tobago and move to the bustling city of New York. It was a significant change, but it allowed me to chase my childhood dreams of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. 

In August 2018, I began a new chapter by joining the Data Science and Engineering Lab at MSU, led by University Foundation Professor Jiliang Tang. This marked the beginning of my doctoral journey in computer science. However, I quickly realized the need for more diversity in the doctoral program and the field of computer science and engineering, or CSE. The absence of Black students and faculty made me feel like an anomaly, and navigating this landscape was challenging. However, I persevered, drawing strength from my grandmother's favorite quote: “Bloom wherever you are planted.”

As a first-generation graduate student, I began to grapple with feelings of depression and dissonance, seeking out programs and communities that could provide a sense of belonging. A pivotal step was joining the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. Program Director Steven Thomas leads this National Science Foundation-funded program, which supports underrepresented minorities in the doctoral program. With the unwavering support of my family, friends and newfound colleagues, I realized that my journey was part of something larger.

In response to my challenges, I focused my research on fairness and bias in artificial intelligence, or AI, inspired by the biases I encountered in the classroom and everyday AI systems. In December 2020, I co-authored a paper titled “Does Gender Matter? Towards Fairness in Dialogue Systems,” shedding light on the significant biases in computer dialogue systems. This experience propelled me into fairness research areas like fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics in AI, addressing social factors such as race, gender and language. I have since published over 10 conference proceeding papers in top global conferences and interned at big-tech companies such as Google, primarily highlighting disparities in AI and advocating for social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion to reduce the sense of technological marginalization and disenfranchisement.

My doctoral program eventually evolved to focus on social justice research in AI, with the aim of challenging potentially discriminatory practices, often stemming from oversight rather than malice. This newfound passion drives me to continue my research in interdisciplinary fields such as machine learning and computer vision, emphasizing the importance of technological inclusivity in the future development and deployment of AI technologies. I hope my contributions can pave the way for AI applications to better incorporate demographic attributes like race, gender and language without exacerbating harmful stigmas.

My experiences at MSU have equipped me with technical and interpersonal skills, which will undoubtedly shape my career. Now, at 26 years old, I proudly carry the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago flag as one of a few Black CSE doctoral graduates and first Afro-Caribbean graduate to achieve this milestone. I am honored to be making waves in the computer science field and representing my country on this academic journey.

Nov. 8 is First-Generation College Celebration Day and this week MSU is celebrating the accomplishments of our first-generation students. For information on how MSU supports our community, visit the First-Generation College Student Initiative.

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