Virginia Tech alumna Cherie Poland has been named one of four ethics co-chairs for the 36th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS), the most prestigious conference in artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML).  

This is the latest entry on Poland’s list of achievements. To name only a few, she was issued one European patent and had five of her U.S. patent applications filed; created and later sold a biotech company; ran her family-owned cattle ranch (while holding a full-time position as a biotech patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office); and earned six college degrees, including a J.D.

The most recent, in December 2021, is from Virginia Tech, where she was a student at the Sanghani Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics. She received a Master of Engineering from the Department of Computer Science, one of the first degree programs for the university’s Innovation Campus.

“Cherie’s work ethic, adaptability, and expertise in the field of AI/ML make her a wonderful role model for all future Master of Engineering students,” said Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus. “The NeurIPS Conference will benefit from having her on board.”

Much of what Poland has done throughout her career was unplanned. “Life has thrown me a lot of curve balls, and I had to adapt,” she said. “My advice to my kids and anyone else, for that matter, is that you do not have to be just one thing. Life is not always fair. You need to get back up and dare to dream even if others say ‘no.’” 

In addition to more than 13 years as a patent examiner, Poland’s experience includes positions as data engineering manager, machine learning engineer, and solutions architect at Accenture Federal Services; patent attorney and strategic advisor at Nolte Intellectual Property Law Group; and chief executive officer and vice president at Riley Genomics (later rebranded to Crescendo Bioscience), which she co-founded.

Poland has received a number of professional awards, including an Examiner of the Year Award from the American Intellectual Property Law Association and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2011, a Department of Commerce Bronze Medal for Superior Federal Service in 2012, a Federal Exceptional Career Award in 2017, and a Peer Recognition Award from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2018.

While earning her master’s degree at Virginia Tech, she had an internship in the U.S. Department of State, where she was assigned to work with the critical infrastructure program in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and was chosen as an Oak Ridge Associated Universities Artificial Intelligence Research Fellow at the U.S. Army DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory. 

“Having the ability to study and work in the field at the same time, I was able to see diversity from a hands-on point of view,” said Poland. “That was when I learned an important lesson: Computer science is not monolithic. There are so many different subfields that it can be very difficult to choose just one.”

Currently, she is principal investigator and subject matter expert for a private research consortium in the greater Houston metropolitan area, where she focuses on researching and explaining complex adaptive dynamic systems.

Poland’s multiple foci include functional algorithmic impact assessments of artificial intelligence ethics at the intersection of law, engineering, and software development in multiple use-cases, including data disparities and decisional complexities. Her primary legal focus encompasses data law, privacy law, and criminal law related to data and computer crimes, both in the United States and internationally. 

Being the victim of a criminal hack influenced her decision to pursue a Master of Engineering. “It was a stressful and eye-opening experience, and I wanted to know why and how it happened,” said Poland. 

With her varied experience and multiple degrees, Poland said she was “the very definition of a non-traditional student, and I am very grateful for the support I received from program director, Sara Hooshangi. She also helped me through some personal hurdles and is a true champion for students.” 

Poland took a number of courses, including Ethics and Professionalism in Data Science taught by Naren Ramakrishnan, Thomas L. Phillips Professor of Engineering in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech and director of the Sanghani Center. 

Last December, she presented her collaborative research on “Auditing Algorithms: Determining Ethical Parameters of Algorithmic Decision-Making Systems in Healthcare,” at the 2021 SIMBig Conference, held virtually in Lima, Peru. The paper, published by Springer, is a modified version of a research paper for Ramakrishnan’s class.

“Dr. Ramakrishnan really encouraged me to use my prior skill sets in law and bioethics and combine them with the AI and data analytics knowledge and experience I gained at Virginia Tech. The combination is pretty rare and I have been able to find a niche that I really enjoy,” Poland said.

Cherie Poland sitting on lawn with six-year old twin daughters Lela and Kira
Cherie Poland with her 6-year-old twin daughters, Lela (at left) and Kira. Photo courtesy of Cherie Poland

Poland attended NeurIPS conferences in 2019 and 2020 and at the latter, was invited to speak to a Women in AI group.

In her role as an ethics co-chair, Poland will oversee the Ethics Review Committee’s scope of work that focuses on discrimination/bias/fairness concerns; inadequate data and algorithm evaluation; inappropriate potential applications and impact (i.e. human rights concerns); legal compliance; privacy and security; and responsible research practice and research integrity issues (i.e. plagiarism), in addition to the social implications of artificial intelligence, which include continuum of data, datasets, and benchmarks as well as algorithms and models. 

According to statistics from NeurIPS, 9,122 papers were submitted to the 2021 conference, and Poland said a 10 to 15 percent increase is expected this year. 

The conference will be held both online and in-person in New Orleans in December. Ismini Lourentzou, assistant professor in computer science and faculty at the Sanghani Center, is serving on the conference’s Expo Committee.  

Poland is also tasked with formulating ethics guidance policy documents and generating a formal draft of the conference code of ethics for the board to vote on. 

With all the responsibilities that go with a full-time job, her role at the NeurIPS Conference, and being a single mom, Poland is also managing to work on several research papers and three books.

“Time is the most precious resource on the planet,” Poland said. “There is never enough of it.”

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