The Institute - September 2021 - 63

household, Nashlie Sephus was a
do-it-yourselfer from a young age. She
learned to do household repairs and
other odd jobs around her Jackson,
Miss., home.
" We had to do everything, whether
that meant getting on top of the roof to
hang the Christmas lights or putting up
a new ceiling fan, " the IEEE member
says. " It was little things like that
which really got me into being curious
about how things work. "
Sephus went to sleepaway camps
that focused on a variety of topics
including math and science. One
of those was an engineering camp
exclusively for girls. The program
introduced her to computer engineering,
and she decided it was the field she
wanted to work in.
Today Sephus is an applied scientist
who manages the Amazon Web
Services (AWS) machine-learning
group, in Atlanta. She evaluates the
company's AI-based facial analysis and
recognition tools to root out bias in
them, and she is leading the development
of a bias-identification tool for
machine-learning models.
She also has been working to give
back to her hometown by financing
the creation of a tech hub in Jackson's
Career path
Mathematics was Sephus's favorite
subject in school. One day her eighthgrade
math teacher pulled Sephus
aside after class and encouraged her to
check out an engineering camp for girls
at Mississippi State University, near
Starkville. That camp changed her life.
" That was the first time I was really
introduced to hands-on topics in each
discipline of engineering, " she says.
" Not only did I know what engineering
was, I [discovered] that computer
engineering was fascinating. I knew
that computer engineering was what I
wanted to do. "
Because the camp was for girls
only, it removed the barrier of " feeling
like you're the only one, " she
says. " These were just all girls wanting
to learn about engineering, and it
made it a much better environment
to grow in. "
She says she also learned how
Sephus's work and influence
to relate to people from different
backgrounds-which came in handy
when she went off to college and then
entered the workforce.
" It's no secret that in most of my
classes-and even in other settings-
that sometimes I'm the only female,
sometimes the only Black person. And at
times I may be the only person who was
born in the United States, " she says.
She earned a bachelor's degree in
electrical and computer engineering
from Mississippi State.
She also has a master's
degree and Ph.D., also in
electrical and computer
engineering, from Georgia
Sephus helped create
contributed to AWS's SageMaker Clarify
tool, which helps identify biases
in machine-learning models that
were developed using the company's
SageMaker software.
Sephus's new job requires her to
work with Amazon's legal and public
policy teams. Overcoming bias is partly
a matter of educating people on how
the technology works, she says.
" It's about ensuring that customers
Partpic in Atlanta.
The company was an
all-Black female AI
startup, and Sephus was
its CTO. It created algorithms,
now patented,
to identify replacement
parts such as screws,
bolts, and washers from
an image uploaded by
the user. Its algorithms
would find the exact
match for the part and send the
person a link to a store where it could
be purchased. Partpic was acquired
by Amazon in 2016, and the company
hired Sephus and 10 of her coworkers.
" I'm very happy to say we were
probably the most diverse engineering
team Amazon had ever had at that
point, " she says.
Her first job at Amazon was software
development manager for the
company's visual search tool, which
also uses images of products to find
matches. In 2019 she joined the AWS
machine-learning team. She evaluates
the company's facial analysis and
recognition tools such as Rekognition.
Amazon's software has raised concerns
about racial bias in the technology. In
May the company instituted an indefinite
moratorium on the sale of the
software to law enforcement.
" We want to make sure that we
measure where biases may occur,
whether that be in data or algorithms
or even in the evaluation, " Sephus says.
" We want to
make sure that
we measure
where biases
may occur,
whether that
be in data or
algorithms or
even in the
evaluation. "
are using the technology properly, " she
says. " It's about making
sure that [people] the
technology is being used
on are being treated
fairly. There are many
different stakeholders
that need to be brought
into the conversation
on how we solve those
problems. "
New tech hub
Sephus has been working
to give back to her
hometown. In 2018 she
founded The Bean Path,
a nonprofit organization
in Jackson that provides
free technical assistance
to small businesses, senior citizens,
and students.
" Being a tech expert and having
the well-versed experience that I've
had, I wanted to show people what
is possible when you get on the tech
bandwagon, " Sephus says.
The group aims to build a coding
training center, a maker space, coworking
space, and an innovation hub for
entrepreneurs on land and buildings it
has purchased in the downtown area.
" We're really bringing the [local]
community, the tech community, and
the entrepreneurship community all
together in the central Mississippi
area, " Sephus says.
The IEEE network
She says participating in the organization
helps her build her network.
" I love being able to bring people
into my world so they can understand
exactly what it is that I do, and hope
to encourage them to want to do the
same, " she says.

The Institute - September 2021

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