Analytics at Wharton

Student Spotlight

Diversity in Neuroscience:
How Wharton is Growing the Field

Group Photo of Students from the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program
Ileri Akinnola (far left) is one of two recipients of the inaugural Applied Neuroscience and Business Analytics Summer Undergraduate Internship for Underrepresented Students.

When Ileri Akinnola arrived at Penn to join the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program, he wasn’t sure what to expect from an Ivy League school. He figured it would be ultra-competitive, exclusive, and perhaps a bit unwelcoming to a rising senior from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But he found exactly the opposite.

“UPenn is not what my first impression of an Ivy League was,” he said. “I didn’t get that vibe from anyone there. It was a very inclusive environment.”

That was especially important to him as a Black student majoring in computer science. The son of Nigerian immigrants, Akinnola has grown accustomed to being the only person of color when he walks into a room, even in the international halls of academia. In the classrooms at Wharton, he said, there was representation.

Akinnola is one of two recipients of the inaugural Applied Neuroscience and Business Analytics Summer Undergraduate Internship for Underrepresented Students, which is sponsored by the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (WiN) and Analytics at Wharton. The internship was conceived to combat systemic inequalities and the lack of diversity in neuroscience, behavioral science, analytics, and data science careers. By widening their outreach to target underrepresented students, Wharton faculty and administrators hope to expand the pipeline of job candidates who may not even be thinking of neuroscience and data analytics as career choices.

Elizabeth “Zab” Johnson, executive director of WiN, said she finds students and alumni across the Wharton and Penn community who are often surprised to learn about the broad applicability of neuroscience. They don’t realize that many companies want to incorporate neuroscience and behavioral science analytics into what they do.

Ileri Akinnola

ileri-akinnola-headshot

School
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Major
Psychology, Computer Science minor

Year
Senior

Hometown
Burtonsville, Maryland

“It is our hope that this summer program will start making a difference, and that it will grow so that more and more students will have the chance to see themselves at the intersection of neuroscience and analytics.”

– Elizabeth “Zab” Johnson

“If this is the case at Penn, then there are countless underrepresented undergraduate students outside of Penn who are not being reached and are thus unaware of these educational and career paths,” she said. “It is our hope that this summer program will start making a difference, and that it will grow so that more and more students will have the chance to see themselves at the intersection of neuroscience and analytics.”

Wharton marketing professor Gideon Nave, who advised Akinnola throughout his 10-week internship, pointed to the gaps in research that come from conducting studies through a narrow lens. Without heterogeneity, bias gets baked into algorithms that are built to make predictions from databases that are unrepresentative.

“Likewise, having a non-diverse research community might also generate a bias, as our culture, language, and early life experiences color everything we do — even as scientists who try to remain objective (for example, it could impact our choice of what questions to study). This is especially true for psychology and neuroscience, where our goal is to find principles that apply generally to all humans,” he said. “So, there is much to gain from making the research community more diverse.”

Digging into the Data

Akinnola worked with Nave and Johnson on forthcoming marketing research into how psychological makeup influences the movies people choose to watch. Participants were asked to share their Netflix viewing histories, provide demographic information, and take several psychological/personality surveys. The results provided a treasure trove of data to help the researchers make more accurate determinations about viewing preferences.

Nave said the study expands on previous work that was limited because it made predictions based on what viewers reported that they liked to watch, not what they actually watched.

“Ileri is a perfect match for this project,” Nave said. “It requires both computational skills and knowing how to work with data, but also understanding of psychology for deriving insight and interpretation of the findings.”

Akinnola is proficient in coding, but he also has an intense interest in psychology. In fact, he is switching his major this year to graduate with a bachelor’s in psychology and said he intends to pursue a doctorate degree in the field.

“The way I see it, with psychology you’re learning how humans work, and with computer science, you’re learning how computers work. And no matter what you do or where you go, you have to work with either/or,” he said.

The internship with WiN was the third so far in Akinnola’s college career. After his freshman year, he participated in a summer internship at the University of Florida that examined stress management techniques in an augmented reality environment, and he spent a remote summer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, working on a gender-related study of whether male neuroscientists were cited more often in journals than female neuroscientists.

Akinnola grew up in Burtonsville, Maryland, and currently lives on campus in Baltimore. He’ll be the last of his siblings to graduate from college next year; his older brother and sister are finishing up their MD/PhDs. He credits his parents, who both graduated from college in the U.S., for emphasizing the value of a good education to all their children.

Akinnola is proud of his ethnicity — and equally honest about the challenges of being a person of color in predominately white spaces.

“I think the first part of it is psychological because when I walk into a lab, I’m one of the only people who looks like me,” he said, describing how that can shake his confidence. “Imposter syndrome is very pervasive, and it’s even more pervasive when you walk into a room and nobody looks like you.”

Akinnola also worries that his Nigerian name limits his chances when he applies for jobs and internships.

“I don’t have the data, but I know my name alone shuts down the application process,” he said. “It’s the same mantra that you have to work twice as hard to get half as much, and that weighs on you psychologically.”

He said programs such as the internship at Wharton are helpful because they create a space where underrepresented students can find peers.

“There’s a new generation of people coming in to change these types of things, to give a new perspective, and to make sure people like me don’t fall through the cracks.”

– Ileri Akinnola

“There’s a new generation of people coming in to change these types of things, to give a new perspective, and to make sure people like me don’t fall through the cracks,” he said.

Johnson understands the significance of representation for all students. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, which is a women’s college, and has spent her career in the often male-dominated STEM field of neuroscience. She draws inspiration from Cerita Bethea, director of behavior science at Coca-Cola, who wrote the phrase, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” in a blog about increasing diversity in the field.

“Seeing others like yourself can make a huge difference,” Johnson said.

Nave offered a heartfelt message to students from underrepresented populations: “You have a safe home at Wharton. Science wants you. Please come!”

A Bright Future

Akinnola said he gained a lot of confidence during his time at Wharton because his mentors trusted him with a key role in the research project. He plans to carry that confidence with him through graduation and into the field, although he hasn’t decided if he wants to work in industry or academia.

Either way, Nave and Johnson are sure Akinnola will be a success. They said he is curious, intelligent, analytical, and able to move easily between computer science and behavioral science. It’s a unique combination of skills that most professionals haven’t integrated.

“Ileri has a toolkit that would allow him to expand knowledge by answering old questions in psychology using new methods, and asking new questions that could not have been answered earlier,” Nave said.

Akinnola hopes to see more underrepresented students going after what they want without fear of rejection or that creeping feeling of imposter syndrome. He said having a solid support system is necessary. Besides his family, all three of his roommates have been researchers like him.

“I think the best advice I could give would be to find other people who align with your goals,” he said. “Having that support system to pick you up when you’re down is really important. Don’t look at it as if you stick out; use that opportunity to stand out.”


— Angie Basiouny

Neuroscience Initiative Logo

Wharton Neuroscience Initiative’s bold and comprehensive vision is to improve business, drive discoveries and new applications, and enhance the education of future leaders through the synthesis of neuroscience, psychology, business, technology, and analytics. Rooted in Wharton and spanning the entire University, the city of Philadelphia, and the industry at large, WiN engages with students, faculty, companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to build better business through brain science.