Alumni Profile

Alumni profile: Demi Ajayi, S.B. ’07

Finding meaning in data

Demi Ajayi

It is estimated that more than 2.5 million terabytes of data are created each day, and that mind-boggling number continues to rapidly expand. But all the data in the world doesn’t do a bit of good if humans aren’t able to effectively analyze it.

That’s where Demi Ajayi comes in.

Ajayi, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is product manager of IBM Watson Natural Language Understanding (NLU), an analytics service that can extract metadata from massive troves of text, including keywords, categories, and sentiment.

The Watson NLU application programming interface (API) could be used to help firms more effectively automate certain business processes or gain greater insights about specific trends, she explained.

As product manager, Ajayi studies opportunities in the market, evaluates customer needs, and ensures the team is continuing to enhance offerings and increase user engagement, all while keeping an eye on emerging tech that could be incorporated into existing products.

“I enjoy talking to customers, really digging in and understanding what their problems are and how our technology can help solve them,” she said. “It is kind of like research in a way; you have a hypothesis of what you think people want, but you have to validate that hypothesis. You have to use a research mindset to not be biased and get to the root cause of what customers are looking for.”

Ajayi’s first experience with research came during her time as a mechanical engineering concentrator at SEAS.

As a sophomore, she joined the Neuromotor Control Lab of Maurice Smith, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering. Ajayi quickly became fascinated by the way biology and engineering combined to shed light on how the brain controls neuromotor function.

Two years later, as a senior working on research in the Microrobotics Lab of Rob Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, she was captivated by the seemingly impossible challenges of developing the diminutive Robobee.

“I saw firsthand how perseverance and dedication to science and research has the power to do things that are really transformative,” she said.

Demi Ajayi and Nekpen Osuan

Ajayi (left) and Nekpen Osuan at the WomenWerk Gala. (Photo courtesy of Demi Ajayi)

After graduation, Ajayi joined Boeing as a structural analyst and design engineer.

Outside her day-to-day work, she joined coworkers on “Project Sun Fly,” an after-hours initiative that sought to build a small, solar-powered airplane. She became interested in the cool projects her colleagues from R&D were working on, and noticed they all had something in common—Ph.D.s.

So Ajayi enrolled at Columbia University to earn a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering.

“My initial interest was solar energy,” she said. “I was looking to develop better solar energy solutions for countries like Nigeria, which is where my family is from, as an alternative to regular power generation.”

Over time, her research focus shifted, first to nanomaterials and then to optical spectroscopy.

She stayed busy outside the lab, too. Ajayi and her friend, Nekpen Osuan, launched WomenWerk, a nonprofit organization that hosts programs to empower women of color in the workforce and in civic engagement.

“I thought it would be a good way to bring women together to talk about our experiences and find other women who may be inspirations to us. It is always good to have an example, to see someone who has trailblazed a path ahead of you, just to get inspiration and see what is possible,” she said. “It has been really inspiring to see the power of what women, and Black women specifically, are doing in the world.”

As she was cofounding WomenWerk and completing her Ph.D., Ajayi also started working at the Columbia University Tech Transfer Office. She had an interest in entrepreneurship and bridging the gaps between technology and real-life applications.

She evaluated invention submissions from professors and sought out companies that might be interested in licensing new technology. After earning her Ph.D., she continued at the tech transfer office, working closely with business development reps and venture capital firms, as well as evaluating technologies to see how they could be improved.

That work led her to a position at the startup ResoluteAI, which was working on an easily accessible platform to provide technology scouts with information on new technologies, potential applications, potential impacts, patent documents, and more.

Demi Ajayi at ASME Office

Ajayi at the office of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (Photo courtesy of Demi Ajayi)

“I have a passion for getting technology out into the world, or supporting people who are doing awesome things and helping them bridge that gap between their great idea and seeing it out in the world,” she said.

At ResoluteAI, she had some exposure to machine learning and found herself intrigued by the seemingly endless possibilities of the technology.

She decided to join IBM Watson to dive into more tactical work using cutting-edge machine learning capabilities in novel ways.

For instance, now that remote work has become increasingly common due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she helps clients use the technology to overcome unexpected challenges in streamlining processes and handling customer care requests in a virtual environment.

She’s looking forward to applying the problem-solving skills she developed as a mechanical engineer, the diligence she honed as a researcher, and the ingenuity she refined in entrepreneurship to solve new puzzles.

“My best advice is to be open to opportunities when they come your way. My path wasn’t linear, but I had certain interests, such as wanting to bring tech to people, and found different avenues for that,” she said. “It was a through-line as far as what was important for me to contribute to the world, and I used it to guide me. You can iterate, you can refine, you can try things out and find better paths, but be open and be flexible.”

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