SENEGAL-FRANCE: Death of web pioneer

Obituary: Rose Dieng-Kuntz - 30 June 2008

Scientists in France, Senegal and around the world are mourning the death of Rose Dieng-Kuntz, specialist in artificial intelligence, prize-winner of the prestigious Irène Joliot-Curie award for women scientists and the first African woman to attend the elite French grande école Polytechnique.

Valérie Pécresse, French Minister for Higher Education and Research, expressed deep sadness at the announcement of her death aged 52: "Rose Dieng was working at the emergence of a shared web of knowledge, she worked for us all with boldness and the integrity of the exceptional scientist that she was. France and science have lost a visionary mind and an immense talent."

Although she admitted to being born in 1956 in Dakar, Senegal, Dieng never gave the actual date. She grew up in a family of seven children and had a brilliant school career. In her concours général examination at the lycée Van Vollenhoven in Dakar she took the top places in mathematics, French and Latin, and second in Greek, and in 1972 passed her scientific baccalauréat with honours and congratulations of the jury.

She continued to shine when she moved to France for her higher studies, becoming the first woman from Senegal, and from Africa, to be admitted to the Ecole Polytechnique. After obtaining a doctorate in information technology, and publishing a thesis on the specification of parallelism at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications, she joined INRIA, France's national institute for research into computer science and control.

In 2005, Dieng won the Irène Joliot-Curie prize, awarded annually to outstanding women scientists by the French Research Ministry and the EADS Group. She was senior research scientist and leader of the ACACIA project into knowledge acquisition for aided design through agent interaction at INRIA's Sophia Antipolis research unit near Nice, in south-east France.

When she received the prize, Michel Cosnard, Director of INRIA Sophia Antipolis, said: "We would like to emphasise not only the exceptional personality of Rose Dieng-Kuntz and her exemplary academic and professional career, but also the vision of this scientist who had the foresight to initiate research on the problem of knowledge modelling and acquisition more than 10 years ago.

"Just after the invention of the web and well before its widespread use around the world, what insight to envisage its applications, understand its limits and decipher its evolution. She has demonstrated not only remarkable scientific daring and great self-confidence, but also a rare, independent spirit by leaving the golden path of academia to strike out alone down the difficult and risky road to the unknown and discovery."

At the time, Dieng said her vision was "that of a web of knowledge linking individuals, organisations, countries and continents".

"The research we are aiming for seeks to improve cooperation between business and the community by building 'knowledge webs', a goal that is in phase with Europe's target of evolving from an 'information society' to a 'knowledge society'."

ACACIA later evolved into the EDELWEISS project which Dieng headed at the time of her death on 30 June in Nice, after a long illness.

On the condolences board set up by INRIA, Pierre Haren, founder of software company Ilog, recalled his first meeting with Dieng in 1969 when he distributed the prizes at her school in Dakar "and she made off with [them] all". Haren said he followed with admiration her "dazzling trajectory which did not affect her modesty".

He met her again at INRIA. "Rose was brilliant and infinitely human. I treasure the memory of that modest smile which made everyone who spoke to her feel greater, the frown which showed she was taking care to understand thoroughly what she was being told. How many teachers or colleagues must have been impressed by this attentiveness that she used to grasp and enlarge on the knowledge of others," wrote Haren.

In 2006, Rose Dieng became a Knight of the Order of the French Legion of Honour.

Photo credit: © INRIA / Jim Wallace

Please note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Rose Dieng had taken French nationality. In fact, although she spent many years in France and her husband was French, she never considered obtaining French nationality (or dual Senegalese-French nationality). She often said no-one must ever forget their origins, and keeping her Senegalese passport was a way of showing her attachment to her African country of birth. University World News apologises for the error.