Leading from the front in AI – CSIR’s Dr Reevana Balmahoon

Johannesburg, 02 Sep 2021
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Dr Reevana Balmahoon.
Dr Reevana Balmahoon.

If there is one thing that CSIR’s Dr Reevana Balmahoon is determined to change, it is the level of representation of female professionals in the field of data analysis and artificial intelligence (AI).

Dr Balmahoon is the research group leader for AI and augmented reality at the institute, and frowns upon statistics from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Forum 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, which shows that just 32% of professionals in data analysis and AI are women.

She believes that emerging technologies like AI, robotics, digital biology and virtual reality will converge in a way that transforms industries, businesses and our lives in general. Dr Balmahoon plans to help spearhead this revolution, and help position women at the core of this change.

“Our constant research and development in this exponentially changing landscape ensures we are at the forefront of the AI and AR space. We explore the unchartered territories into which technology can take humanity… reimagine the world as we know it.”

Balmahoon will pursue this objective and leverage her position and influence as tech lead at WomEng, a multi-award winning social enterprise developing high-skilled girls and women for the engineering and technology industries.

“This is a global issue – I remember visiting Microsoft in the United States of America in 2017 and was surprised to see that less than 40% of their tech positions were held by women.”

Balmahoon’s passion for equality in the workplace and within industry is equalled only by her unwavering commitment to analytics and related technology.

Balmahoon leads a dynamic team of researchers who produce cutting-edge research and working solutions across industries in the AI environment.

As a researcher in an evolving technology, Balmahoon is constantly looking for new applications of AI and their relationship to enhance how humans experience the world. To keep abreast of the latest advancements, she ensures that her finger is on the pulse of the industry.

“In June 2021, Google and Harvard University unveiled the most detailed image of the human cerebral cortex, with approximately 130 million synapses. With this amazing achievement, the complexity of the human brain is highlighted. Our contributions serve to enhance the decision-making power across industries, while delving deeper into the human mind and understanding how to use these AI algorithms for good.”

But, as expected, it is protection against COVID-19 that remains top of the list of priorities.

“Recently, WHO provided a moratorium on booster shots of the vaccine until vaccinations were administered in the low-income countries. I think that the virus has made it clear that we are all in this together. After visiting one of our vaccination sites, I believe that SA definitely has the ability to vaccinate and combat the virus, and this can be achieved with speeding up the roll-out,” says Balmahoon.

She feels that while South Africa has made some progress when it comes to recognising the contribution of professional women to the country’s economy, there is still much to be done.

“We need for women (including young women) to take up more space in our boardrooms and parliaments. There are a few ways in which current efforts can be heightened: empowering women, updating the social protection around jobs for women and recognising different models and agile implementations for work,” says Balmahoon.

STEM leadership

The CSIR executive says more must be done to champion the role of women as leaders in STEM fields.

“The main challenges ensuring gender parity in STEM fields are the lack of female role models and the stereotype that says women cannot be scientists and engineers. Businesses, government and academia all need to ensure that these challenges are addressed by portraying women as leaders and pioneers in this field,” Balmahoon adds.

In the meantime, with any spare time away from her responsibilities at CSIR, Balmahoon enjoys hiking, reading and swimming and subscribes to a dedicated routine of yoga and meditation.

She names her parents as her main source of inspiration.

“They have inspired me beyond words. I have also found a great mentor in Hema Vallabh, co-founder at WomHub. I try to live by the saying, ‘be good, do good’ – it’s simple and, in my view, encompasses a large part of humanity and our contribution to the world.”

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