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Alumna breaks ground with a Ph.D. in computer science

Inside Gallaudet

Karen Alkoby, a member of Gallaudet’s Class of 1984, broke new ground for deaf professionals in June when she became the nation’s first deaf woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science.

Now that she has established herself as a pioneer in the U.S., she is taking her degree across the ocean.

Soon after receiving her doctorate degree from DePaul University of Chicago, Ill., Alkoby accepted a six-month position at Institut de Recherche en Informatique de Toulouse at Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, beginning in November. As a member of the institute’s Image Processing and Understanding team, she will contribute to ongoing experimental research on sign language analysis and comprehension using video processing on gestural or facial recognition approaches.

The path to a career field isn’t always a clear one; for most people, it takes a few attempts before they can say “This is what I want to do with my life.” Such is the case with Alkoby. As a teenager growing up in Chicago, she attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, which boasts a large mainstream program for deaf and hard of hearing students. However, it was the National Association of the Deaf’s Youth Leadership Camp she attended in 1977 and 1978 that formed her identity as a deaf person and influenced her decision to attend Gallaudet. The camp was led at the time by renowned deaf youth leaders Dr. Frank Turk and Gary Olsen. “Many of the camp’s staff members were from Gallaudet, and many campers were planning to attend the University,” Alkoby said. “This was the major factor behind my decision to enroll.” Alkoby credits Gallaudet “for giving me full confidence in myself and knowing that nothing can deter me from my dreams just because I am deaf.”

Alkoby chose psychology as her undergraduate major. “I love working with people, so I thought it would be a perfect fit,” she said. Following her graduation from Gallaudet, she volunteered as a teacher at a deaf school in Tel-Aviv, Israel. It was there that she decided, with the support of her future husband, Yossi Alkoby, a deaf Israeli, to shift her focus to the computer field.

After returning to Chicago, Alkoby she contacted DePaul and inquired about enrolling. “I remember when I first called the director of the program,” Alkoby said. “He said it might be very hard for me. I asked him to let me try and see how it would work out for me, and he agreed.” As it turned out, Alkoby’s knack for analytical and logical problem solving made her a natural for the computer science field. After seeing how well Alkoby did in her coursework, the director told her she was an above-average student and that he was very happy she had decided to enroll in the program. “I think it was a new experience for him to interact with a deaf person,” said Alkoby.

Alkoby received her master’s degree in information systems from DePaul in 1999 and continued her studies toward her Ph.D., all the while working full time in the information technology field. There were times when the demands of study and work left her discouraged, she said, but the support of her family, friends, and professors gave her the will and the perseverance to stay focused on her goal.

“DePaul University has a long-standing tradition of fostering diversity, and was extremely supportive of [Alkoby’s] efforts, and we all applaud her achievement,” said Dr. Rosalee Wolfe, a professor in DePaul’s School of Computing who served as Alkoby’s dissertation advisor. “It was amazing to witness her energy and commitment to learning. Her level of passion was a source of inspiration to our research group.” As the committee guided Alkoby through her endeavor, the members also learned from the student. “She is a dedicated ambassador for ASL, and it was through her efforts that our eyes were opened to deaf culture,” Wolfe said. “Her accomplishment has already inspired other students, both deaf and hearing, to continue to strive for their own dreams.”

Alkoby has not hammered out specific plans for when she returns from France, but her long-term goal is to encourage more deaf people to enter the field of computer science. “Teaching has always been my passion,” she said. “I hope to share my knowledge of my chosen field through communication in my preferred language--ASL--in the near future.”



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