Univ. of Michigan Graduates First African American Woman in Computer Science

University of Michigan's first African American female Computer Science Ph.D. graduate, Kyla McMullen.

The science fields are in need of more minorities, in particular, African Americans.  Scientists of all kinds, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and engineers throughout this country that are African American are few and far between.

When you’re a minority in any capacity, race or otherwise, it isn’t easy when you don’t have peers to help you navigate the waters. Kyla McMullen, 27, found out just how difficult when she discovered that she would be the only African American woman to become a Ph.D. candidate for University of Michigan’s computer science department, according to University of Maryland’s Baltimore County (UMBC) Computer Science and Electrical Engineering News.

She graduated in 2012 and now works as an “assistant professor at Human-Centered Computing division in Clemson’s School of Computing where she studies the use of spatial audio in the development of spatial mental maps.”  Heavy, right?  That basically means, she’s working in the field of artificial intelligence.  She figured out how to navigate those waters at a high level.

She graduated from UMBC’s Computer Science department in 2005, and said, “My time at UMBC prepared me very well for Michigan.” One of her two study buddies, Nwokedi Idika, is also the first African American to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Purdue University.

But in the process of achieving her seemingly insurmountable goal, she came across blatant racist remarks from a graduate student liaison during her first semester, according to the Grio.  He said:

“I’ve never taught one of ‘you’ before.”

While she didn’t understand why he referred to her as “one of you,” things started coming into clear view by her second year in graduate school:

“My adviser told me, ‘Not everyone is cut out to study computer science. Have you tried any other careers?’ He said I didn’t have what it took to study computer science,” she said. “That was the only time someone blatantly said to me to my face that I couldn’t do something. I can’t assign a reason why he said that, but I’m pretty sure it’s because of the way of I looked… I was really taken back of how dismissive he was about me.”

Sound like the same experience our people were having at the turn of the 20th century when attempting to choose career paths in law or medicine or anything outside of blue collar jobs. This is 2013, and African American representation in the sciences is nearly non-existent when you look at the numbers.  According to the Computing Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey,

“Out of the more than 1,400 Americans who received Ph.Ds in Computer Science from 2010-2011, less than a quarter were female, and a mere 1.2 % (or 16 people) were African American.”

HATS OFF TO KYLA MCMULLEN!  She is even willing to talk to young women and/or girls who are interested in pursuing a career in the sciences.  She is willing to offer the advice and suggestions she can at [email protected]

Read more about this astounding young woman and her journey here.

-J.C. Brooks

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