Brittany Nkounkou has become the second Black woman to earn a doctorate from Cornell’s Computer Science department. A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Graduate Scholar, she defended her dissertation Certified Software for Designing Asynchronous Circuits in August 2020 after being advised by a committee that included Cornell CS professors Ross Tate, Hakim Weatherspoon, and Bob Constable as well as Rajit Manohar at Yale University.
When CS News reached out for comment on her milestone achievement, Brittany began with “thanks to the department for being flexible” as she made her way to a dissertation subject. When she arrived at Cornell CS with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Connecticut, she said she “didn’t know what I wanted to study. It wasn’t until my third semester,” she recalled, “when I took Ross Tate’s class on ‘Types and Semantics’ that I encountered ‘certified software.’” During her studies, she collaborated with Hakim Weatherspoon on a project and met regularly with Bob Constable to discuss programming languages and type theory. Later, a project with Rajit Manohar on “asynchronous circuits” proved decisive for the development of her research project. And indeed, her dissertation is a blend of these two fields, hence Certified Software for Designing Asynchronous Circuits.
Brittany recalls her dissertation committee fondly, saying, “All of them were very supportive of whatever I wanted to do.” They supported her in serving as a Graduate Exchange Scholar in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Yale (hosted by Rajit Manohar) during her dissertation work. And she extends a special thank you to her committee for their support and forbearance during a leave of absence she took from the program to work full-time at Google in New York City. Looking back, Brittany observes that for some people such a break might mean the end of their graduate training, “but for me, the break worked.” In short, immersion in the tech industry helped her clarify her desire to complete her doctoral degree and better articulate her research path in Cornell CS.
Brittany acknowledges Cornell’s Diversity Programs in Engineering (DPE) and Professor Weatherspoon for being “fundamental in having me attend lots of diversity events,” including the ACM Richard Tapia Conference and the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, all of which greatly motivated her to continue in and ultimately finish her degree. When she arrived at Cornell, Brittany was the only Black student in the doctorate program; now there are many more, and Rediet Abebe became the first Black woman doctoral graduate in December 2019. In time, Brittany found a community at Cornell CS in part while serving as President of and Public Relations Chair for the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association (BGPSA).
Brittany concludes with a word for current and prospective graduate students in Cornell CS: “Collaboration at Cornell CS is very real. The faculty regularly engage in interdisciplinary work and want their students to be genuinely well-rounded. While some of my peers have complained about the course load, seeing it as a distraction from research, I really appreciate the wide range of classes we take.” Similarly, the CS colloquium series “exposed me to top-level international research” and was crucial in “showing me the difference between a good talk and a bad talk.”
As Brittany is enjoying her achievement at Cornell CS, she is also beginning to think about what she wants to do next. Having served as a TA for Ross Tate and Nate Foster, she’s now considering a search for an academic teaching position.