Shining a Spotlight On: Diarra Bell

September 22, 2022

As a full-time working professional it was important for Diarra to continue developing her career while attending graduate school. She chose Duke Engineering.

As a full-time working professional, it was important for Duke Engineering master's student Diarra Bell to continue developing her career while attending graduate school—and still have time and energy to focus on her important personal interests.

Diarra recently took a moment to enjoy some delicious food while sharing her experiences in Duke's AI for Product Innovation Master of Engineering program, discussing her future plans and proving that spontaneity is just as important as a well-thought-out plan.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background

I grew up in cold Rochester, New York. As a kid, I wouldn’t say I was into technology or coding. I was more interested in biology, writing, and reading. I read a lot as a kid and always had my nose in a book and loved reading during recess. I also loved video games, which were like an introduction to computers. I was interested in how video games were made. When I first started my undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester, I majored in astronomy because I loved space. I took a required computer science course, and I did well, which led to a TA position. I enjoyed the class so much; I switched my major to computer science.

When I graduated in 2020, I started working at my current company remotely. Initially, the position was not remote, but I was hired the summer during Covid and eventually, the position went fully remote. I feel it works well with our line of work which is a global focus on customer service. There was a high level of uncertainty once I started the position and there was a possibility of moving to Boston. I was living with my parents after graduation and working so I could save money. This ended up working out, as I was able to move to Durham, North Carolina, to become a student in Duke's AI for Product Innovation Master of Engineering (Duke AIPI) program.  

Where do you see yourself in two to five years?

This is a tough question because I grew up in the same place for 22 years. Two years ago, I did not picture living in Durham or going to Duke. I lived in the same area where I was born and moved out for my undergraduate, but I was still in the same town. My parents were very supportive of my move to Durham for school. I knew I was doing the online program because I didn’t want to stop working full-time. I also like that I can continue with my career growth while in school. I want to be doing something that makes an impact on people and is more directly related to AI. I see myself in a leadership role and maybe in 10 years or so working at Google Brain or a game design company in a leadership role.

What academic achievements did you set out to accomplish with this program and did you achieve them?

I am one of those people who wings it, and didn’t have an academic plan of what I wished to accomplish. I went with this program because it was something I am interested in. I took an AI class in my undergraduate program, but it was more theory-based and writing equations. I wanted to get more experience coding, building projects, and creating something from scratch, which was a big appeal for me.

What do you do for fun/de-stress from school?

I have a lot of interests outside of school. My indoor hobbies include reading, crocheting little animals and playing video games. I also love to run and being outside hiking with friends. I am also learning Japanese in my spare time. I minored in Japanese in undergraduate and didn’t want to lose my skills, so I go to a local place twice a week and take classes. When I was younger, I was into Japanese fashion which progressed into wanting to learn the language. My favorite things about the study abroad were the shopping experiences and the clothes. I also liked being outside and seeing different parks and outdoor spaces in Japan.

Which Duke course was your favorite and why?

AIPI 540: Deep Learning Applications, with Jon Reifschneider, is my favorite class thus far. We are getting into the thick of things in AI. We started with computer vision and now shifting into natural language processing and building projects from scratch, which is what I am super excited about. All the skills I have learned from coding and working with different types of tools have given me confidence in what I do for work. I am now proficient in Jupiter notebook and my coding skills have improved tremendously. We mostly work with Python, so being able to express ideas in Python is very helpful. Python is my favorite language to work with now. 

Was there another profession you were interested in and if so, what was it?

In an alternate life, I would love to be a kindergarten teacher. I love working with younger kids. I have a ton of patience and appreciate their curiosity at such a young age. I volunteered in downtown Durham for the Martin Luther King Day event working with kids which I really enjoyed.

Do you have a hidden talent and if so, what is it?

My hidden talent is I play the piano and I started playing in kindergarten. I haven’t had a chance to play since I moved here but I would love to purchase a keyboard and start playing again. When I was in middle school and high school, I played the alto saxophone.

What advice would you give to someone considering Duke's AI for Production Innovation master's program?

Start learning Python now. The Python boot camp was challenging. If you are coming into AIPI and do not know Python, start learning the basics now. Learn what the different objects in Python are, write a hello world program, get a code editor picked out, and get a GitHub account. Ask a lot of questions. The professors at Duke are always open to answering questions. It is better to ask questions early in the course, so you don’t get too far behind. The concepts build on each other so you want to make sure you have a solid understanding prior to getting too far into the class.