1st black female computer science PhD student at Univ. of Michigan reveals lack of role models

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Kyla McMullen's graduation from University of Michigan in spring (Courtesy of Kyla McMullen)

Kyla McMullen's graduation from University of Michigan in spring (Courtesy of Kyla McMullen)

Growing up, McMullen always knew that computers and technology were her calling. Nicknamed ‘Inspector Gadget’ by her friends, she said that she’s always had a fascination with gadgets.

“Everything I wanted for Christmas always had have a digital component. You name it — virtual pets, Tamagatchi!” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by digital things… You would always find me on the computer clicking through files and playing around with different shortcuts.”

But the bubbly, Washington DC native never knew until she reached college that she would be one of the few minorities in the field.

“There were very few females [in the department] yet alone, minorities. Being one of the only women, it definitely was something that the department didn’t value and didn’t really pay attention to,” McMullen said.

The lack of minorities in this field prompted McMullen to advocate for greater diversity at University of Michigan. She was both the president and the vice president of The Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists – Graduate Component (SMES-G)  as well as the Vice President of the Movement of Underrepresented Sisters in Engineering and Science (MUSES).

According to the 2010-2011 Computing Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey, of the 1,400 Ph.D students  in computer science, less than a quarter of them were female and only 1.2 % (or 16 people) were African-American.

McMullen is currently 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.

“African-American women traditionally tend to gravitate towards field that are not lucrative in their pay scale,”  she says. “People just discount [computer science] in general, but they’re selling themselves short at the end of day. Yeah there’s some nerds in your class, but I see it as an art.”

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