Alex Hanna made it through. But she knows it wasn’t a sure thing.
Hanna, who graduated with a PhD from the Department of Sociology in 2016, came out as a transgender woman while she was a graduate student. She credits the support of her academic advisor, emerita professor of sociology Pamela Oliver, for helping her navigate her personal and academic journey.
“She was very helpful to me,” says Hanna, who now works as the Director of Research for the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (DAIR), an organization committed to centering communities impacted by technology to improve the use of AI. “But it could easily have gone the other way. I’ve heard from many different transgender people, and if their advisor doesn’t support their transition, they’re not going to be in a good spot. It’s really contingent on the individual, and that’s a problem for academic work.”
It’s also a large part of the reason Hanna recently created the Alex and Demiana Hanna Pride Scholarship, a fund designed to support undergraduates pursuing a sociology degree who are actively committed to and engaged in activities which advocate for and support the LGBTQ+ community.
The first recipient is Cassidy Martin, a fourth-year First Wave scholar from Nashville, Tennessee. Martin is a spoken word and visual artist, and a sociology major with certificates in Education Policy Studies, Educational Services and Teaching Artistry.
The scholarship also honors Alex’s mother, Demiana, a determined scholar who had to defer her dream of becoming a professional accountant to raise Alex and her two sisters when the family moved from Egypt to America. Demiana was the first woman in her family to go to college.
Demiana’s dedication and sacrifice helped to inspire Alex, a self-described “computer nerd” who took apart her first computer at the age of 10. Alex began her time at Purdue University as a computer science major, but quickly found herself drawn to sociology and the social impacts of technology. She became fascinated by the ways in which algorithms privileged and disadvantaged different types of groups—which is what led her to the field of ethical AI research.
“I’ve always been drawn to the nexus of technology and society,” says Hanna. ”I’m fascinated by the connections between the two—when it works well, and when it exacerbates injustice.”
Hanna’s second job after graduation was as an ethical research scientist with Google. She describes her time with the tech giant as a “learning experience” about how large tech organizations work—and how a glaring lack of diversity in them makes producing quality research difficult.
“Creating the scholarship is about supporting students and bolstering queer, trans and people of color in the discipline,” says Hanna. “Social science is desperately needed in the tech industry. This is a way for me to put my money where my mouth is.”
Hanna left Google earlier this year, frustrated by, among other things, the company’s focus on profit and shareholders, to join her former boss at Google, who had left the company in 2020 to found DAIR. DAIR’s work focuses on countries and communities where AI and technology negatively affect disadvantaged groups—a list of places that includes Venezuela, Argentina, Ethiopia, Bulgaria and India, as well as the United States.
“It was a natural fit for me,” she says. “My conscience is much clearer, and it’s nice to work with a group that is empowered by what they’re doing.”