Women in Tech Series: Isabelle Mohr from Jina AI and the NLP Challenges

“I managed to find an inner strength to push me into doing something I was interested in regardless of that little voice in my head”

On November 23rd, Madiff attended Pyladies, a virtual event about “NLP Challenges”. It was the perfect occasion to meet Isabelle Mohr: NLP Engineer at Jina AI. In this informal conversation, our Business Manager Vera Araújo found out how she dived into NLP and gathered great advice for tech enthusiast from all areas of knowledge.

Below you can find the entire transcript on this conversation, or you can navigate using this index:

First, I wanted to thank you for being open to a conversation with us at Madiff. Second, and most important, I’d like you to introduce us to Isabelle. When did you start feeling interested about this industry, what type of positions did you have before coming to Jina AI…

Well, actually I graduated in Applied Linguistics and Psychology at Rhodes University, South Africa for my Bachelor and at the time I had a really inspiring Professor who was interested in Corpus Linguistics and that was probably the first time I got interested in something related to NLP.

Unfortunately, at the time there weren’t any NLP or Machine Learning oriented courses. Since it was what I wanted to do I came back to Germany and started a Masters in Computational Linguistics which I was really excited about. I was doing some work on the side as well. For the last year of my studies, I was an NLP Engineer at a startup here in Berlin. We were mostly working on grammar issues and how to automate grammatical error correction and that was all before I met Jina AI.

And how did you meet Jina AI?

At the time I was looking for companies that could help me getting more involved in NLP and that’s when I decided to apply to a position with them.

The company is quite internationally diverse. We have 4 offices, 2 of them are in China, one in Berlin and also a small office in the Bay area, US. I would say we have half of the engineering team in China and the other half here in Berlin. As you can imagine there are a lot of different people and cultures in different time zones which makes it interesting to hold meetings (laughs)

I’ve been following Jina AI for a while, and I see that they chose you to represent them and speak at an event that focused on attesting the status quo in NLP. On top of that you happen to be a woman, accidently (both laugh). I want to know if you’ve ever found yourself struggling to speak with confidence on a topic that is so technical and that requires so much research.

I definitely felt less confident speaking when I was a student, but I also think that after being at Jina AI for 8 months now, being given the platform to speak quite often, even just the practice made it a lot easier. Jina AI often reaches out to me saying “Hey there’s this event, do you want to speak at it? or “There’s this event, do you have something interesting that you want to present or talk about?”. It not only gives me the practice but also a platform within a community with which I can share.

I’ve also felt that in academia, since there was a mix between people coming from the Linguistics and the Computer Science field, the gender distribution was actually pretty levelled. It makes me very hopeful that women are also finding non-conventional ways to get into the tech space.

Do you feel that Jina AI gives this platforms to other women within their teams?

I actually think we make quite an effort to not only show our diversity but also bring people with diverse backgrounds to talk and bring something different to the debate. That’s something very crucial for us at Jina AI and a lot of it comes from giving everyone a safe environment to express themselves.

That’s even more important. You not only carry “women in tech” as one of your mottos, but also cultural diversity.

No doubt! We also have some initiatives outside where we support women in India who are working in this field. I remember that during international women’s week we hosted a cross industry panel discussion that gathered women with different backgrounds. I definitely recognize we’ve been doing some efforts to bring more and more women to Jina AI and I think some of these events and initiatives also gave us quite a big user base of women in Nigeria which is pretty interesting.

Now that you are even more comfortable and confident talking about your work, what you do and producing scientific content, do you feel like you have your own platform or that you’re joining the boys’ club?

That’s a very interesting question. I can tell you that I’m very confident in my skin now that I can speak at some events inside and outside of Jina AI. Slowly I’ve been getting my own space and specially with Jina AI’s support.

Let’s go back to the event. I wasn’t there in person, so I couldn’t get a sense of the participants. Did you feel that women were well represented at the event?

Absolutely, most of the questions in the audience were coming from women. We had some male speakers but within the audience probably about 70% were nonbinary and women. I think the reason behind this is the fact that Pyladies is really welcoming. We also have a really good code of conduct that is iterated every time we gather.

I’m going to give you the stage now. What advice would you give to younger Isabelle, who’s in the middle of her Bachelor in Linguistics already thinking about shifting to NLP, and who is probably a little bit afraid of not having a fair opportunity?

As part of my Bachelor, I decided to take one year of Computer Science which helped me getting my basics done. As a similar I suggest other people to look for coding bootcamps or even do the same. Also had to convince myself that the hard courses I had on my masters were not scary and I could do them (laughs). For people who also have the chance to hop up in some technical courses, “do not be afraid to”.

I distinctly remember, this voice in my head saying “you can’t do that”, “you’re not a mathematician”, “you don’t know how to code so just stay the cool Sociolinguistics and Psychology Bachelor. I think I managed to find an inner strength to push me into doing something I was interested in regardless that little voice in my head. I do think that this voice in not necessarily individual or personal and rather stands from our environment and reflects things that are happening around us which makes even more difficult to ignore it. It becomes very crucial to find a place that makes you feel comfortable and having a good community around it’s a great way to kick off.

In that case, you have Jina AI as your safe spot…

A 100%. Being in Berlin also plays a big role. This sense of freedom and acceptance of all kinds makes it an even better combination and I think that’s why Jina AI fits here so nicely.

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