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Dr. Khensani Xivuri shatters glass ceiling, becoming the first black woman to earn a PhD in Applied Data Science at UJ

Thursday, March 14, 2024, marked a momentous occasion at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) as it celebrated the first graduation ceremony of 2024. Amidst the sea of proud graduates, one name shone brightly: Dr Khensani Xivuri, the first Black female recipient of a PhD in Applied Data Science from the Institution.

Dr. Khensani Xivuri

Hailing from the villiage of Peninghotsa, Malamulele in Limpopo province, Khensani’s path to success was marked by determination and perseverance. Her journey serves as a testament to the power of resilience and the pursuit of one’s dreams against all odds.

Dr Xivuri described the experience as immensely demanding yet exhilarating! Nights blended into mornings, juggling between academics and employment posed formidable challenges. At first, red marks adorned nearly every submission from the supervisor, but progress eventually emerged.

Dr Xivuri recounted their father’s cherished saying in Xitsonga, “unga sunguli xilo unga xi hetisi,” emphasising the principle of commitment and perseverance from start to finish. Giving up was simply not on the table.

Breaking Barriers

As the first and only black female to receive a PhD in Applied Data Science from the University, Khensani has not only made history but has also become a symbol of hope and inspiration for many. An achievement she said she’s immensly proud of. Dr Xivuri added that women should continue breaking barrier and mark their place in STEM fields.

“It feels absolutely incredible! I’m overflowing with happiness and fulfilment. Throughout my journey, I’ve thrived on challenges; I find joy in pushing my limits and see every difficulty as a chance to exceed my past accomplishments, which is truly invigorating. I believe women should embrace STEM careers as thrilling adventures; we must encourage more women to make their mark and ignite inspiration for the next generation in this field. The greater our presence in STEM, the more empowering it becomes for future generations of women. We need leaders committed to uplifting others as they progress.”

Unveiling bias in AI models

Her research focused on developing a procedural model aimed at identifying and mitigating bias in Artificial Intelligence (AI) models prior to their implementation.

She emphasised the implications of bias by illustrating a scenario where an algorithm, based on flawed assumptions, could unfairly impact individuals, such as a black woman being unjustly denied a home loan or facing higher interest rates due to erroneous credit scoring.

Dr Stella Bvuma (left) with Dr Khensani Xivuri

Dr Xivuri’s research acknowledges the significant societal consequence of biased AI models.

“A lot of bias has been detected from these AI models, and this has had a huge impact on society. My research focused on creating a process model to detect and address bias in AI models before their deployment. The model stresses the importance of involving society which they are building these models for throughout the development process,” she said.

Dr Xivuri added that one of her key findings revealed limited gender and social diversity in AI teams.

“One of the key findings revealed limited gender and social diversity in AI teams, which can lead to bias in these models, as certain groups may be underrepresented or misrepresented, ultimately affecting the fairness of AI models and their impact on society,” she explained.

Dr Stella Bvuma, Director of the School of Consumer Intelligence and Information Systems at UJ celebrated Dr Xivuri’s achievement as ‘embodying the essence of shattering barriers’.

“Her accomplishment surpasses mere academic triumph; it embodies the essence of shattering barriers and paving the way for forthcoming generations. In an era increasingly reliant on data and technology, experts like Khensani serve as invaluable assets, adept at navigating the digital terrain with confidence and profound knowledge.”

Dr Bvuma further highlighted that Khensani’s journey resonates deeply with the ethos of diversity and inclusivity in academia. “Her triumph serves as a poignant reminder that talent knows no bounds and that with dedication and perseverance, every aspiration is within reach. Khensani’s journey stands as a guiding light, propelling us closer to a future characterised by brightness and inclusivity with every milestone conquered.”

Celebrating UJ

Dr Xivuri shared that her decision to complete her PhD at UJ was inspired by UJ’s strong academic performance and being a leader in the production of research outputs.

“UJ is one of the best university’s in South Africa and has recently been ranked as the top producer of research outputs in South Africa. My experience doing my PhD at UJ was instrumental in my success. The Centre for Applied Data Science (CADS) has a highly supportive team that is deeply invested in their students’ success, consistently pushing them to reach their full potential.

CADS arranges quarterly PhD excursions, during which we gather for three days to focus on research, provide updates on our progress, and plan our next steps. This initiative was incredibly motivating and played a significant role in helping me complete my PhD,” she said.

She thanked the CADS team and her supervisor for their continued support in the journey to PhD.

“A big shout out to my supervisor Prof Hossana Twinomurinzi, and the CADS team! The education system needs more people like you.”

As we commemorate Khensani’s remarkable feat, let us also reflect on the significance of diversity and inclusivity in academic spheres. Dr Khensani’s achievement accentuates the transformative power of perseverance and serves as a beacon of hope for a future where every dream is achievable.

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