Enjoying a scholarship from MIT

My name is Rebecca Johnson but most people call me Bec.

I am a PhD researcher in the School of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney.

I have a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts as well as a Master’s by Research. I also have many years’ industry and leadership experience, as well as six years university teaching.

In my PhD I look at AI ethics through a sociotechnical lens.

I am a Tech ethics researcher, specifically the ethics of artificial neural networks. The deep learning side of AI.

I am proudly a dual citizen of both Australia and Canada and when possible divide my time between the ocean and the mountains. When not staring at a screen or talking to the world’s largest artificial intelligence, I am usually outside walking with my boxer dog.

University thesis abstract page.

Through a dark glass, clearly.

Research interests

Language model AI, sociotechnical systems, tech ethics, ethical applications of new technologies in human systems, agency, cybernetics, memetics, virtue ethics.

AI ethics groups

Founder of PhD Students in AI ethics

Listed in 2019 and 2020 on “100 Brilliant women in AI ethics” by Lighthouse 3″

Member of the BigScience project at Hugging Face

Member of the OpenAI GPT-3 community (closed access).

Member of Women in AI.


Research Training Program (RTP) Stipend Scholarship
A primary scholarship that provides a stipend for the duration of the PhD program. “This is a Commonwealth Government scholarship awarded to assist students of exceptional research potential with their studies.” Letter of offer from The University of Sydney.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Scholarship 2019

In 2019 I received a scholarship from MIT to attend the prestigious EmTech conference held at the MIT Media Lab. It was a fantastic opportunity to hear directly from many of the world’s leading edge innovators and to observes the ethics discussions around some of these innovations. The opportunity also enabled me to meet with MIT Media Lab researchers also working on the future of work. Additionally I met with the senior leaders for Graduate Research at both Harvard and MIT to discuss what measures they are taking to best prepare PhD students for work outside the Academy.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Scholarship 2020

In 2020 I received a second scholarship from MIT to attend EmTech Next. The conference was held virtually due to the pandemic, nevertheless, the insights from many business technology leaders were very enlightening. I am very grateful to MIT for two scholarships in such a short time frame.

Social Media

Twitter: @VoxBec
Linkedin: Bec Johnson

Masters by Research

Master’s work – Direct Voice

University Sydney
Project Website: Direct Voice
Thesis on Sydney University Library: Direct Voice: Including the student voice in academic governance in a large, research-intensive university

A two-year degree, completed entirely by thesis work. The final thesis was 46,000 words with an additional 200 pages of appendices. The research work used cybernetic theory to design and test new communication and organisational learning structures in a higher education setting. Using n-loop learning, the research demonstrated the benefits of facilitating student participation in academic governance decision-making.

Awarded without corrections and high distinctions from both examiners.

This thesis makes an important contribution to the field of higher education studies and is a result of excellent research.”
Examiner, Harvard University 

The thesis is well-written, and the arguments made in a nuanced way come to a variety of interesting conclusions.
Examiner, The University of South Australia. 


Quality in Postgraduate Research 2020

The University of South Australia, April 2020
All three papers I submitted for this important international conference have been accepted with very positive reviewer comments. I am very grateful for such a wide level of inclusion knowing how competitive this conference is. One of my applications was to run a workshop on Graduate Research Qualities for the 4IR. I have been allocated a full hour timeslot for the workshop.

Doctoral Education Assessment & Learning Colloquium 2019 

I presented on the findings of my Masters by Research work, notably on the effect on graduate students’ perception of their agentic power when allowed to co-create their university environment. 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Scholarship 

MIT Media Lab, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA. 17th-19th September 2019 
This generous scholarship covered the conference fees for the EmTech conference held at MIT Media Lab by MIT Tech Review. 

Australian Research Management Society 2019 

The University of South Australia, 18th July 2018 
I presented a 45-minute session at this conference which included 20 minutes of speaking time and 25 minutes of audience questions and discussion led by me. The topic was on a large event I had organised for graduate research students at the University of Sydney in May.

Quality in Postgraduate Research 2018 

The University of South Australia, 18th – 20th April 2018 
My presentation and abstract were co-authored by Professor Ross Coleman and Dr Alana Mann. The abstract was given very positive feedback by both reviewers giving an evaluation of “3 – strong accept”. The 25-minute presentation was allocated as a “Showcase” and was well received.

33rd EGOS (European Group of Organisational Studies) 

Copenhagen Business School, 5th-8th July 2017
Accepted to present at the Academia-meets-Practice workshop that was hosted by leading experts in the field of Communication Constitutes Organisation. The Copenhagen Business School is considered one of the premier business schools in the world; the conference attracted over 2,500 people from around the globe. 

Undergraduate education

Bachelor of Arts (Communications)
The University of Calgary, 2014-2015 
Graduated ‘With Distinction’ and a place on the Dean’s list. G.P.A. of 3.8 (out of 4). I completed two capstone theses during this degree; one looked at building a conceptual framework of complex systems theory combined with constitutive communication theory, and one explored the sociological impacts of how our online actions construct ‘digital terraforming’. Several written references from my teachers at Calgary are available. 

Bachelor of Science (Earth Science) 
Deakin University 1997 – 2001 
My primary areas of interest were planetary geology and science communications. Invited to the Golden Key Society for Academic Excellence. Distinction average. Spent three summers volunteering with Monash University’s paleontological dig site in Inverloch. Invited to work on an Honours degree at Melbourne University working on geomorphological flow process on Mars under a CO2 model; work conducted with NASA collaboration.

University Engagement 

HDR Connect – May 2019 

I conceived, developed, planned, and executed the largest Higher Degree by Research (HDR) student-led event of this kind the University of Sydney had seen in memorable history. Bringing 300 HDR students together with 100 academics and industry partners, I created a university-wide network, with industry representatives from a diverse range of fields.

After 12 months of planning and lobbying for over $35,000 to resource the event, I gathered 40 HDR students from across the University to form an organising committee. I worked with numerous stakeholders within the University, both professional and academic to bring together 14 success workshops. I also connected with many external stakeholders from a variety of industries including national government science bodies, state government departments, international consulting firms, major banks, and many other industry partners. We ran three Industry Connect panels that then joined the networking event. This initiative was strongly supported by the executive leadership including the Deputy Vice Chancellor Education, the Director Graduate Research, the Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, the Chair of the Academic Board, and all the Associate Deans Research Education. I received a personal letter of thanks from the Vice-Chancellor of the University on completion of the project. 

The HDR Connect pictures on Flickr tell the story best.

HDR Liaison Committee – New initiative

Noting that the diversity of HDR voices was not always being adequately represented in governance fora, as well as the disconnection and isolation often expressed by the HDR cohort, I conceived of a solution. After months of planning and discussion with the Deputy Vice Chancellor Education and the Director of Graduate Research, I took my plan to the University Executive – Research Education for endorsement which was given. This new student body of 30 HDR students from across the University and from a wide variety of other demographics such as age, ethnicities, and genders, will form the conduit for a two-way dialogue between the HDRs and the senior executives charged with developing policy and strategy for the HDR environment and experience. University attendees will include the Deputy Vice Chancellor Education, the Director of Graduate Research, and the Associate Deans Research Education. Thus far, over 100 HDRs have submitted expressions of interest. Membership will be decided in October 2019.

Elected SUPRA (Sydney University Postgraduate Representatives Association) Councillor. 2016 – current 

I have been elected to this primary student body three times and have served as a nominee for an additional year. Advocating on behalf of SUPRA and the HDR student cohort of 5000 people, I have represented on numerous senior-level governance committees. This advocacy role involves reading, often large, agenda packs, representing the student voice, reporting back to SUPRA, and advising SUPRA executive, staff, and other student representatives on HDR governance issues arising from these committees. 

  • The University Executive – Research and Education committee 
  • The Academic Board 
  • The Academic Qualities Committee 
  • Supervisory Policy Review Working Party Committee 
  • Sydney Operating Model student representative reference group 
  • Learning Analytics Advisory Board 
  • Liaising with other nominated HDR representatives. 
  • HDR+ grant review panel 
  • Various other student consultation meetings 


New Units in 2021

  • Emerging Technologies – Faculty of Arts, Department of Media and Communication. Masters level.
  • Science 2050 – Faculty of Science, History and Philosophy of Science. Undergraduate level.

Postgraduate senior lecturer: Organisational Communication

The University of Sydney, 2016 – current (second semester) 
This unit attracts students pursuing Master’s in Strategic Public Relations, Master’s Digital Communication and Media, and Master’s Media Practice. I have taught this subject for four years, which involves three class streams and a total of approximately 75 students. I create a highly participatory learning environment and employ engaging in-class activities designed around real-world case studies, problems, and currently trending issues. My teaching feedback score is generally 4.8 out of 5 with a high return rate of surveys. My unit of study reports from my students are always a pleasure to read and make me feel that I have contributed to a positive experience for many of our Master’s by coursework students. I have been asked to be the Unit Coordinator for this subject in 2020. 

Undergraduate teacher: Leading and influencing in Business

The University of Sydney, 2018 (first semester) 
This second year undergraduate unit is aimed at developing team and leadership skills for global and diverse workplaces. The unit attracted students primarily from a finance background and covers personal reflection, ethics, social responsibility, and inclusive leadership. The lessons were highly interactive with a strong focus on building ‘soft skills’ to better equip students to enter the workforce. I received very positive responses from my students across four classes (approximate total of 100 pax), and a high teaching score on the unit of study feedback report. 

Undergraduate teacher: Introduction to Media studies

The University of Sydney, 2017 and 2019 (first semester) 
This first-year unit has a very high entry score and thus consists of many high-achieving young students that are new to University study. Helping these students make this transition is very rewarding. My focus is on helping them develop a critical eye to the world and to their own perspective and bias. Complex communication theories were covered to provide students with a strong framework to build their future studies on. My classes are very experiential and activity based, and also usually topical to the current news and relevant to the demographic of the students. I received great feedback from both students and the Unit Coordinator for my teaching skills. 

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