‘It’s so exciting to see what I feel so passionate about making a positive impact on the quality of everyday life’

Posted on August 28, 2020


Professor Nelishia Pillay, Head of the Computer Science Department at UP, tells Tukkievaria about her predilection for artificial intelligence and why passion – rather than perfectionism – is a recipe for success.

As Head of the Computer Science Department at UP, Professor Nelishia Pillay has found that trying to be perfect is a problem that many students experience. She chats about her own experience of this, how she came to be interested in artificial intelligence, and what’s on her mind this Women’s Month.

TV: Tell us about yourself and educational qualifications.

NP: I hold a PhD in Computer Science in the area of artificial intelligence. At school I loved problem-solving and mathematics. I was in Grade 10 when I first read about Computer Science in my dad’s business magazines. That’s when I decided that, rather than being a Mathematics teacher, which was my choice at the time, I wanted a career in Computer Science. My dad supported this by obtaining more reading material for me on the subject. One of the reasons I chose to major in Computer Science is because artificial intelligence intrigued me. When I did artificial intelligence in the third year of my undergraduate degree, I was disappointed by its achievements, or lack thereof, at that stage. I then pursued an honour’s in Applied Mathematics, which I had enjoyed the most in third year.

After that, I completed my master’s degree in Computer Science, then my PhD in Artificial Intelligence. It was during my doctoral studies that I decided to continue working in this area. At that time artificial intelligence was thought of as something academic, and there was not much interest from colleagues and friends when I rambled on about it. It is extremely exciting to see what I feel so passionate about receiving such prominence and making a positive impact on the quality of everyday life worldwide.

TV: What does your role at UP entail, and what keeps you motivated?

NP: I am Head of the Department of Computer Science, am Multichoice Joint Chair in Machine Learning and interim SARChI Chair in Artificial Intelligence.

The work I do as Multichoice Joint Chair and SARChI Chair is what motivates me most in my career. This gives me a platform to impart my knowledge of artificial intelligence to researchers, postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Based on a presentation that I gave to students on artificial intelligence arranged by Career Services, the Artificial Intelligence Student Society (AISS) was established at UP with the mandate of facilitating artificial intelligence literacy. Both these Chairs give me the opportunity to work with industry as well as various departments at UP to use artificial intelligence to find solutions to real-world problems.

TV: What are your aspirations at UP and for your life in general?

NP: To be the best that I can be at what I do, and to achieve international competitiveness personally and for the department.

TV: What are some of the challenges of your job?

NP: I have several interests in administration, teaching and research. As a result, I am involved in various projects, which makes time management challenging at times.

TV: What do you consider as a highlight in your career?

NP: The first would be being awarded my PhD in Computer Science in an area I am passionate about. The second is my appointment as a Professor – this is the pinnacle of my career.

TV: What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?

NP: I would say a lack of self-confidence as a student and in the early stages of my career. My role model is my dad because of his perseverance and ability to achieve even in the face of adversity. I believe the lack of confidence can be attributed to trying to be a perfectionist and feeling that whatever I did was not good enough. As Head of a department consulting with students, I have found that this is a very real problem that several students struggle with. In fact, Oxford University has perfectionism workshops to assist students with this very issue. For anyone who would like more information on this, go to https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/counselling/workshops, or to listen to podcasts on the subject, go to https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/counselling/self-help/podcasts

TV: What steps do you think should be taken to put an end to gender-based violence (GBV)?

NP: Mechanisms to promote public awareness of GBV need to be put in place. GBV literacy and awareness should also form part of education at school level by incorporating the subject into the Life Skills syllabi. GBV literacy and awareness should feature prominently in life skills and wellness programmes at universities. Also, leaders in society (such as religious leaders) should make constituents aware of this issue and provide mechanisms for support.

TV: What advice would you give to women today?

NP: Sometimes things might feel overwhelming and unattainable. But believe in yourself; believe that you can achieve what you want – and you will. Computer Science is still a male-dominated field; this usually comes down to personal choice, which is influenced by various experiences in life including social media, friends, family and different cultures. Whatever career choices you make, just be sure that you feel passionate about what you doing and look forward to doing it on a daily basis, irrespective of what challenges this might bring.


- Author Primarashni Gower

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