2023 Ada Lovelace Honoree,
Dr. Sanja Scepanovic
Announcing our 2023 Ada Lovelace Honoree, Dr. Sanja Scepanovic
For the past four years, as part of our annual worldwide recognition of Ada Lovelace Day, Nokia has selected and announced its own Ada Lovelace Honoree. The aim is to honor the pioneering mathematician and world’s first computer programmer Augusta Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) and recognize a Nokia role-model as an encouragement for women at the start of their scientific careers.
This year, Nokia is proud to recognize Dr. Sanja Scepanovic. Sanja has a degree in mathematics after which she completed her Master’s in cryptography and mobile computing. Since joining Bell Labs in 2018, she has become an AI researcher, looking at health through social networks and mobile sensing, as well as urban outcomes using remote sensing. She also holds a business and innovation doctoral degree from the EIT Digital Academy and is an alumna of the International Space University.
How did Sanja become who she is today?
Sanja Scepanovic spent her childhood in Montenegro. “I spent lots of time in my grandparents’ village playing in nature. I was always fascinated by how things worked, probably because of my grandfather’s influence. He was a very hands-on man and used to teach us to look at the world and ask questions. Also, my dad was always doing quizzes with me when I was small to test my knowledge”, she shares.
When she finished high school, a test by a school psychologist revealed that her interests were widely spread across a whole spectrum of topics, opening up lots of possible directions of study. “That was a bit of a double-edged sword. These broad interests took me from mathematics to crypto security and then to data science. It took me some time to find my focus. Now, I can however proudly say that I am an AI researcher using AI to study various aspects of social wellbeing and population health.”
From Montenegro and mathematics, she went on to study in a highly technical master's program in cryptography and mobile computing at Aalto University in Finland and at the University of Tartu in Estonia. This topic was both extremely interesting for her but came to odds with her own beliefs. To become a true expert in security and cryptography, she quickly realized that she would have to develop a hacker’s mindset and imagine all illegal things people could do to breach systems and cause disruption: “I realized that I didn’t want to imagine all those illegal twists.”
Instead, she launched herself into understanding how technology, AI and data can be used to enhance the psychological wellbeing and health of people and understand the impact of the environment around them.
One practical example? She analyzed a public data set published in the UK by the National Health Service (NHS) concerning all the prescriptions that are issued. Organizing it by geography meant that Sanja could establish, for example, how many antidepressant prescriptions were issued in a limited geographical area within a certain time period.
In parallel, she worked with the Technical University in Munich as part of her fellowship program and was able to cross-run this geographical prescription data with the environmental satellite data for the same geographical area at the time that the prescriptions were issued. “That meant we could compare data about yearly temperatures, precipitation, wind, air quality, pollution, ozone, greenery, and so on with that prescription data. By doing this, we created a picture of the relationship between the people’s mental and psychological conditions, sociodemographic attributes and environmental indices. It has helped us to better understand how these are all interlinked and establish the kinds of effects that the environment can have on mental health, for example."
There are no limits to Sanja’s interests. Originally, after finishing high school, she wanted to study astronomy. In Montenegro, that wasn’t possible. So, she chose mathematics instead. However, her first passion stayed with her, so after finalizing her master’s she enrolled into the International Space University offering space study programs, which she attended in Florida at the NASA Kennedy Institute. This experience combined with a 6-month internship in a satellite-specializing Finnish start-up, ICEYE, refined her thinking and sparked a new interest in how responsible AI can be used for earth observation. “I'm also researching the relationship of responsible AI in earth observation and human rights. Of course, we need to be very careful when gathering and analyzing data. We can’t interfere with people’s privacy, and we should balance risks and opportunities for fundamental human rights.”
Today, Sanja works in the Responsible AI team at Bell Labs which was only launched a couple of years ago. Already Nokia is one of the rare companies recognized as a leader in this important field.
“I’m lucky to be part of a super smart, motivated and hard-working team. Working on a doctoral thesis can be very lonely and for the first time I’m experiencing the advantages of teamworking – as well as some of the challenges! We help each other on common projects but Bell Labs in general has more men than women, which is sometimes reflected in the way we approach things. Men approach things differently to women. In my view, a better gender balance would deliver more objective results.”
Sanja has been interested in increasing women’s advocacy from a young age. At school in Montenegro, she was a keen visitor to the village library and got hooked on reading the classics written by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë which she re-read several times. “They made a strong impression on me. I was also touched by the fact that they had to write their books under a male pen name to get their thoughts published.”
Being recognized as an Ada Lovelace honoree is a significant achievement for Sanja. Her motto is: “I love to live, live to love and I’m happy to inspire others”. That’s a motto we can all aspire to live by. A huge congratulations goes out to you, Sanja.