The first Color of Our Future webinar of NCWIT’s Conversation for Change series in 2023 took place on February 8 at 12 pm MT. Hear Dr. Jeremy Waisome and Dr. Kyla McMullen present “Elevating Modern Figures in Computing.” The event also featured a panel discussion. Both speakers are current faculty members at the University of Florida. The Modern Figures podcast is presented by the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences (iAAMCS) and the Computing Research Association—Committee on Widening Participation (CRA-WP), in collaboration with NCWIT. It is currently in its fourth season, and features guests who share their experiences as Black women in computing spaces.
Dr. Jeremy A. M. Waisome is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Education. Her research focuses on effective mentoring strategies for underrepresented populations in Engineering. She earned her Bachelor and Master of Science degrees and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Florida (UF), and now serves on the UF Ronald E. McNair Advisory Board. She is also a member of the Associate Provost’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee at UF. In 2018, she was awarded the Mike Shinn Distinguished Member of the Year (Female) by the National Society of Black Engineers. In 2017, she was inducted into the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. In addition, Dr. Waisome was inducted into UF Hall of Fame (2010) and is a recipient of the UF Outstanding Leadership Award (2010).
Dr. Kyla McMullen is a tenured faculty member at the University of Florida’s Computer & Information Sciences & Engineering Department. Dr. McMullen has a personal commitment to encouraging women and minorities to pursue careers in computing and other STEM fields, and is the leader of the SoundPAD Laboratory at the University of Florida, which focuses on the Perception, Application, and Development of 3D audio. Her current projects include: (1) psychoacoustic analysis of the quality of customized head-related transfer functions, (2) using 3D audio to sonify positional data for situational awareness, (3) discovering critical interface design techniques for developing virtual auditory environments, and (4) using 3D audio to increase immersion and realness in virtual and augmented reality.
STEPHANIE WEBER: Welcome, and thank you for joining us for NCWIT’s Conversation for Change, an online thought leadership series. Today’s session focused on “Elevating Modern Figures in Computing.” My name is Stephanie Weber, Director of K-12 and Regional Initiatives for NCWIT. I’m honored to be here with you today with Dr. Kyla McMullen and Dr. Jeremy Magruder Waisome, co-hosts of The Modern Figures podcast: a series elevating the voices of Black female scholars in Computing. Today, you will hear their stories and experiences while studying and working in the tech industry.
But first, we wouldn’t be here today without the support of our sponsor, the Department of Defense STEM: the largest employer of scientists and engineers in the nation. DoD STEM supports educational outreach to increase opportunities for inquiry-based learning and hands-on activities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – particularly for underrepresented groups and military-connected communities. DoD STEM offers programs for students and educators, ranging from pre-kindergarten through post-secondary, as well as professional learning opportunities for current workforce. You can find out more by going to their website, which we will share in the chat.
I would like to now hand it over to Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, Senior Research Scientist and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Women and Girls of Color, who will be further introducing our panelists as well as facilitating our discussion today. JeffriAnne?
DR. JEFFRIANNE WILDER: Thank you so much, Stephanie. Hello, everyone – and Happy Black History Month! Today, we are joined by the hosts of The Modern Figures podcast, Dr. Jeremy Waisome and Dr. Kyla McMullen.
Dr. Jeremy A.M. Waisome is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on effective mentoring strategies for underrepresented populations in engineering. She earned her Bachelors and Master of Science degrees, and PhD in civil engineering from the University of Florida, and now serves on the UF Ronald E. McNair Advisory Board. She is also a member of the Associate Provost’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee at UF. In 2018, she was awarded the Mike Shinn Distinguished Member of the Year (Female) by the National Society of Black Engineers. In 2017, she was inducted into the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. In addition, Dr. Waisome was inducted into UF Hall of Fame in 2010, and is a recipient of the UF Outstanding Leadership Award (2010).
Dr. Kyla McMullen is a tenured faculty member at the University of Florida’s Computer & Information Sciences & Engineering Department. Dr. McMullen has a personal commitment to encouraging women and minorities to pursue careers in computing and other STEM fields, and is the leader of the SoundPAD Laboratory at the University of Florida, which focuses on the perception, application, and development of 3D audio. Her current projects include: (1) psychoacoustic analysis of the quality of customized head-related transfer functions, (2) using 3D audio to sonify positional data for situational awareness, (3) discovering critical interface design techniques for developing virtual auditory environments, and (4) using 3D audio to increase immersion and realness in virtual and augmented reality.
The Modern Figures podcast was inspired by “Hidden Figures,” to showcase the expertise, education, and career paths of Black women and girls in tech. The podcast has international reach and has been used as a resource for countless individuals across the US who are recruiting and supporting Black women in computing. The podcast has been supported by three NSF Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) alliances, including the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences (iAAMCS), the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), and the Computing Research Association Committee on Widening Participation in Computing Research (CRA-WP).
So, The Modern Figures’ podcast has been downloaded over 25,000 times across 58 episodes. Additional statistics for the podcast are displayed above. The average length of each episode is 60 minutes. The podcast had widespread reach, being featured on Apple podcasts, Google podcast, Spotify, Amazon Music, Stitcher, and also other platforms. The Modern Figures podcast’s broad reach is also evidenced by the fact that it has been downloaded by listeners in over 76 countries. The top 10 countries are: the US of A, Canada, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Korea, France, Germany, Israel, Angola, and Denmark.
As a result of the success of the show, Co-PIs Waisome and McMullen created a non-profit organization, Modern Figures, Inc., back in 2019. The purpose of their nonprofit is to expand opportunities for engagement beyond the digital world. They successfully engage with audiences from high school communities, to multi-campus college communities, to conferences in computing across the country through a variety of speaking engagements. Many of these discussions incorporate the anecdotal evidence gathered from interviews, recognizing that there is a critical need to expose students to role models in computing.
So, let us welcome Dr. Kyla McMullen and Dr. Jeremy Waisome.
DR. KYLA McMULLEN: Hello! Hi, everyone!
DR. JEREMY A. MAGRUDER WAISOME: Good afternoon!
KYLA: Good afternoon!
JEFFRIANNE: Alright! So, let’s just jump into it! It is so great to be here with you both today, having this conversation.
Our goal today, and of course in this series, is to celebrate the contributions of Black women and girls in computing and to empower more Black women and girls into the tech space. Let’s just start by having you all tell us about your stories. Who or what has inspired you on your path? And, tell us a little bit more about the work you do to broaden participation for Black women and girls in computing. Within that, we would love to hear about the courses that you currently teach, or that you teach in general, and what research questions you are currently pursuing? I know that was a lot, but just tell us about who you are.
KYLA: It will tie in together. I guess I’ll start. So, I am Kyla, and I would say some of my earliest encouragement into getting into this area had to do with people who were in advisory roles. First, it was like a teacher. Another was sort of a college mentor/scholarship program advisor. I would say the one thing that everyone had in common is that they had knowledge that I did not have access to at the time, and I was receptive to said knowledge because I trusted them in their pedigree and everything that they were telling me to do.
So, even in high school, you know, for some reason I just thought you needed to be a white boy to study computer science, and I had a lot of apprehension – but I had a teacher who was a Black male, and brand new to the school. I was like, “Oh my Gosh! Computer science can also…” It was something as simple as having a Black man in the classroom who was excellent in computer science to make me feel like I could actually do it myself.
Then moving to college, where I had a similar experience in terms of my scholarship program, where there were tons of examples of Black people who were getting PhDs in sciences, and in STEM. Then in graduate school, the persistence also helped, coming from peers as well. So, I think that was the first part of the question. Where did it come from? Remind me of the second part, JeffriAnne?
JEFFRIANNE: There’s a lot. There’s really five questions in one, so: Tell a story: Who inspired you? Then present day, tell us about your research and your teaching.
KYLA: Yes. So, present day: My research, as JeffriAnne mentioned, is in virtual reality and augmented reality, especially realistic use of sound in these environments to help with situational awareness. Right now, we have a project where we are helping firefighters to get oriented in situations where they are not able to see. So, we’re doing lots of perceptual experiments.
You never go into computer science thinking, “Oh, I’m actually going to do some psychology experiments.” But you know, we design the technology, and since we are in human-centered computing in my division, we have to actually measure humans. That is one really cool thing we are working on.
I also have another project I’m working on with a pediatrician where we’re looking at using virtual reality to help adolescents to disclose sensitive topics during their examinations. I also have a fun project where we are looking at using 3D audio for the museum experience. So, anywhere that you can throw realistic sound into, that’s what I’m doing.
In terms of classes, I have a class based on 3D audio, so that’s always a fun class. I also teach a class called Computers and Modern Society so we can take a step back and think about the actual implications of the technology that the students are being trained to create, to look at how it impacts society; what it means for the future of society. I usually teach it in the fall, so we’re definitely going to talk about ChatGPT in the fall, because it’s so new. You know it has so many ethical, societal implications for lives.
JEREMY: And it’s “modern.”
KYLA: And it’s “modern!” It is modern. It’s a class that I have to update literally every time I teach it because things get old, and new things come out, but it’s a fun class.
JEFFRIANNE: And Dr. Waisome?
JEREMY: I would say for me, I tell people all the time that I am a fake computer scientist, which is fine. I mean, you heard my bio. All of my degrees are in civil engineering, but my interest a lot of that came from when I was in middle school, to be honest. I was always that kid who loved math and science and performed well on those exams. I did well in all of my classes, but those were the things that I was drawn to.
My dad worked at AT&T. He actually worked there for 30 years and retired from there. So, I remember. I would say my earliest influences in computing are from him, having the guts of multiple computers on our dining room table, much to my mom’s frustration. Talking about different pieces of hardware, and how they go together; literally building back a better device, and then putting in the software, programming it. So I had exposure to computing when I was a little, little kid. Playing video games, and all that stuff, right?
Then when I transitioned into college, I did C++, and I hated it. I was like, “OK, this is not for me.” Right? Like, “this isn’t the thing for me.” We also have a numerical methods course in civil engineering; also a thing that I hated! So, as I got exposed to those things related to computing, I knew it wasn’t that end of the space that I wanted to be in.
When I was in grad school, I actually got to the point where it was like, I have ridiculous amounts of data. Like data, data, data, data, data!
JEREMY: I showed Kyla, because we had met at this point, and I was like, “Dear faculty member in computer science, please help me.”
JEREMY: Like, “This data is enormous!”
KYLA: You had some 80-some thousand rows.
KYLA: Or, 800-some thousand rows in an Excel sheet.
JEREMY: Imagine in an Excel sheet how clunky that could be. Right?
KYLA: The page wouldn’t scroll. There was so much information.
JEREMY: Yes. Then, trying to program that so I could leverage the power. I mean, Excel is a very powerful tool, but coding is a lot simpler to analyze than that amount of data. My advisor was not a fan of my code that I ended up writing in MATLAB. So, we abandoned that and went back to the Excel method – but that was the first time I was like, “Oh, this can really change some things for me and my world in civil engineering.”
So, when I ended up kind of transitioning into computing, it was actually when I was like, “I don’t want to be in a space that’s not interested in innovating and moving forward.” Right? I am somebody who is trying to better myself. I feel like the discipline should be doing that, too.
I ended up taking a role as a project manager for the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computer Sciences (iAAMCS), and then I was really a fake computer scientist. I would say all of that journey, people still think that I am a computer scientist faculty member, and will come to me. The great thing about that is I’ve had opportunities for grants, and funding, and support.
KYLA: She gets grants from computer science. She is a computer scientist.
JEREMY: Yeah, and I have funding.
JEFFRIANNE: Yeah, I think it’s official at this point, right?
JEREMY: It’s official, but it’s not official.
KYLA: She’s in denial.
JEREMY: Yeah. So anyways, I’m in denial, but that is where it all comes from.
I teach a course. I actually ended up teaching baby circuits, and also Intro Drag-and-Drop Block Coding in a course that I teach. So, I’m a fake computer scientist for real.
KYLA: You see? Ladies and gentlemen, a computer scientist.
JEREMY: It’s called Engineering, Design, and Society, so the same kind of connection to society where we want our students at the University of Florida really to understand that design has implications beyond just what you create. Right? It impacts humanity, so the human-centered components of design.
KYLA: So, I put two things together about your story that I’ve never put together in all this time I’ve known you. You were doing civil engineering, which is about building and structural things – but you were also building computers. So that background, I’m just saying, it’s been there the whole time.
JEREMY: Yeah, I’ve been building.
KYLA: I just made that connection this time. You’ve been building things. It’s all together.
JEFFRIANNE: OK, so who is going to buy Jeremy the “I’m a computer scientist”? (gestures at shirt) Because you need one. Right?
JEREMY: It’s in my spirit, apparently.
JEFFRIANNE: It’s officially official. I have to say, for knowing you both as long as I have, I did not know your origin story of how both of you met. So, I think that is really neat as well.
JEREMY: Do you want to know the actual one?
KYLA: We met prior to the code thing, but yeah – I was coming to Florida; the power of networking and community. I was coming to Florida, and I had a friend who said, “Hey, you’re going to Florida? Meet my friend.”
JEREMY: It wasn’t me.
KYLA: Then, It wasn’t Jeremy. That friend was like, “Well, I’m going to bring my friend who is in engineering.” Then, we hit it off.
JEREMY: Oh, no, no, no. I invited myself.
KYLA: Oh? I thought she had. Okay.
JEREMY: She was telling me how she was going to meet this faculty member in Computer Science, and her line sister told her about her? I was like, “Okay, sorority.”
KYLA: Mind you, neither of us are Greek. So, a sorority put us together even though neither of us are Greek.
JEREMY: Then, I was like, “You know, what? I’m just going to come.” Because I was like, “She sounds cool!”
KYLA: Yeah, and the two of us are just going back and forth the whole time. Like, “Oh yeah, you’re here too?”
JEFFRIANNE: I love this chemistry. We will talk about the early stuff after the webinar, right? I’ll put a bug in your ears, definitely – but I love to hear; it’s so great to hear the story around how you met, because it really does speak to this chemistry, the work that you would do down the line, and really, the importance of mentorship and stuff, which I know we’re going to talk about a little bit later.
So, the next question: It is Black History Month, right? So, we do need to, right? We have to rep Black History Month – not just in February, but all year. But it is Black History Month, so in honor of that, can you all share, celebrate, or talk about one particular program or individual who you believe has served as a change agent in really making the tech ecosystem more inclusive for Black women and girls?
JEREMY: Okay. There are a number of people who I think should and could be acknowledged, but I have to say my answer is going to be Juan Gilbert. I would not be where I am without his intervention. Kyla feels the same way.
JEREMY: It has literally, that relationship, changed the trajectory of my life. I was going to say career, but really, my life. I was in a place where I was like, “No, no, no. I can’t stay in academia.” So, the opportunity to move into a tech-related field was amazing, but then once I was there it was – as Kyla said, “all roads lead back to Juan.”
JEREMY: The work he’s done to champion Black people in tech, which includes Black women and girls, has really been transformative. I think his career is one that a lot of us would aspire to.
JEREMY: I will let Kyla talk.
KYLA: No, I agree with everything you were saying. Because even I met Juan when I was in my second year in grad school, and…
JEFFRIANNE: Can I stop you for one second? I know I know who Juan Gilbert is, but can you tell everyone else? Give us a little bit more about exactly who Juan Gilbert is.
JEREMY: Who is Juan Gilbert?
KYLA: Juan Gilbert is a full professor and full Andrew Banks professor…
JEREMY: Andrew F. Banks Family Preeminence Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the University of Florida.
KYLA: Prior to that, he was the Division Chair of Human-Centered Computing at Clemson. Prior to that, he achieved tenure at Auburn University in Alabama. So, that is his pedigree, but he was also the PI for the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences. Prior to that, I met him when he was putting on conferences. He had a few NSF awards where he said we need to gather Black people who are doing research in computer science because we need a network. Part of his story is that he didn’t have a network. He didn’t have people. You know, it took a lot.
So, once he got into a position where he was able to convene folks, he decided to – and he is definitely an ally, an advocate, and everything. The thing that I just love the most is that if he meets you, he is immediately in his head, fitting you into some area of “how can I help this person?”
Something might come across his desk, and he’s like, “Okay, let me send JeffriAnne an email, because we talked and she said we were going to send this email.” He is super open with opportunities with anything. He just believes in people. He gave me my first – I won’t say “gave.” I interviewed, but he was the person who even exposed me to the opportunity for my first job coming right out of graduate school and not wanting to be a professor. Here I am later, winning a CAREER Award, got tenure, and I would not be here, I wouldn’t have thought of this as an opportunity without him.
JEREMY: I was going to be a housewife.
KYLA: No, you weren’t.
JEREMY: I was so over. I was done. I was done! The PhD took it all out of me; all the energy, all the joy – all of it, it was gone. It had taken it.
KYLA: After your first three weeks of housewifery, you would’ve done something else.
JEREMY: That’s what he said! That is what he said. So, it was almost like I didn’t realize what was happening in these meetings that we would have that ultimately shifted my interest, or gaze. Whatever.
KYLA: Yeah, kind of like a sneak mentor.
JEREMY: Yeah, sneak mentoring – and he does that for a lot of people.
JEREMY: Part of what his role was with iAAMCS was to help graduate students figure out where they wanted to go, and then help them make those connections and build those relationships so that they could either get an academic position, a position in the field or industry.
KYLA: Yeah, because he has all the connections. People come to him and say “who do you know?”
JEREMY: All roads, all routes…
KYLA: He goes, “Here are the people.”
JEFFRIANNE: And Juan is really, you know, a huge champion, advocate, but he’s also made a lot of Black history as it relates to faculty presence – underrepresented faculty presence – in computer science departments. Can you tell us a little bit more about that type of history and the mark that he has made at the University of Florida?
KYLA: Yeah. He is very intentional about hiring diverse faculty, and a lot of pushback he usually gets is, “Hey, you are just hiring people who look like you!” And he’s like, “Well, when other cultures do this, no one says anything.” However, you know that he does this by finding qualified Black people who may be overlooked in the pool, and all of a sudden, there’s a problem.
I think at one point, did we have five or six Black faculty in the computer science department? I think it was five in our department – and that’s unheard of. We are head and shoulders above every other school in that respect, even in terms of women. We have more. It’s usually University of Florida and North Carolina State University that are head-and-head for who has the most women, and that grand number is six. So, it’s not some huge number, but he is definitely intentional about helping and creating a diverse population pool because he is also in human-centered computing. One of the principles for universal design is that you need to have everyone at the table to design solutions. So, he’s being very intentional about getting the researchers in the room and at the table to create these diverse solutions.
JEFFRIANNE: Love it, love it! Huge celebration and huge thank you to Dr. Juan Gilbert at University of Florida.
Alright, so let’s talk about your podcast! Right? I, earlier, kind of talked about all the people who are listening to the podcast, how many episodes you have, how many downloads you have. Tell us a little bit more about the podcast’s influence on “the culture.” Right? So, what have you learned as a result of doing this podcast, and how do you feel about creating a platform like this?
KYLA: One thing I would say that I’ve learned that I didn’t realize was a huge strength was the power of community. I know the power of community in my own story. I know it anecdotally from other people. But once we have folks come on to the podcast and talk about how “oh, I didn’t feel welcome, so I made this group,” or “I started this organization,” and just how much the power of community can change someone’s trajectory… Then also on the converse, people leaving because they were isolated. So, that was something I really wasn’t expecting to find out.
The influence on the culture? I would say we definitely bring light to saying, “Hey, Black women are also in this space too.” I know we are a very niche sort of subcategory, but the people who are here are squarely here in this space. You have found the right place. So, I think it just brings us more to the forefront to show that Black women are definitely in the tech space. We have issues and concerns that aren’t being addressed, and we are highlighting those needs.
JEREMY: I would say, from my perspective: Podcasting is hard.
JEREMY: That’s the thing that I think. People assume that it’s: “Oh, they just record some stuff, and put it on the Internet!” No. It is nothing like that.
JEREMY: Even from getting support to pay for it, navigating the challenges of what context you exist in, equipment, mailing stuff, tech issues, calendar scheduling… Like, there is so much. Paying people! There is an inordinate list of chaos that’s behind-the-scenes that no one actually gets to see.
JEREMY: Then, they just hear us talking to each other – which is very much just how Kyla and I talk to each other, and inviting someone in, like what we are doing right now. Right?
JEREMY: So, that piece is fun, and easy, and we love that part! It’s the other side of it where it’s just like the management side, where we have highs and lows. We carry each other through those things.
KYLA: Oh, yeah. We have a good balance.
JEREMY: If I’m not where I need to be, Kyla is finding it.
KYLA: I’m on it, and if I’m struggling, then Jeremy is on it. We have a good balance. If both of us are struggling?
JEREMY: Nothing happens.
KYLA: Nobody gets anything.
But more often than not, if one of us is going through it, the other person is like, “I got it, friend.” We’re golden.
JEREMY: Mhm. (affirmative)
JEFFRIANNE: Yeah. I mean, it is very clear that you all are more than just podcast hosts. Right? Y’all are, you know, family.
JEFFRIANNE: Favorite podcast guests so far?
JEREMY: Jamika Burge.
KYLA: Why did you say it first? I wanted to say it first!
So, all of our guests – if you listen to the podcast, every guest is super, extra, mega-special to me.
JEREMY: To us.
KYLA: Yes, but I always say that during the introduction, so that’s why I do..
JEREMY: Yeah. She says everybody is special.
KYLA: Everybody is our extremely extra special guest every time they join. Yeah, Jamika is amazing. Like, Dr. Jamika …
JEREMY: Okay. Well, let me explain why.
JEREMY: So, I think the reason why is because when I see her, I am like, “Oh my goodness, she is incredible!” Right? Like a rock star; it’s like meeting your favorite musical artist intimately.
KYLA: Yeah, and finding out that they’re an amazing person. Like, they are as nice as they appear when actually in person, and they are there for you.
KYLA: I feel like every time she speaks, I need to write down all of the words – because she always has something just super… I don’t even want to say encouraging, just insightful.
KYLA: And not just in the tech space! The tech space is her home, but I feel like she’s one of those people who would make that kind of impact anywhere that she was. She has a very calming presence.
JEREMY: I feel like I know her!
KYLA: Oh, yeah!
JEREMY: I think that’s the thing that we take for granted. We are asking people to tell really intimate details of their lives, like starting from their childhood.
JEREMY: I felt really invited into her story in a way that deeply touched me.
JEREMY: I’ve had other instances with other guests where I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t know this about you!” We’ve had our friends come on the podcast, where it’s like: We know our friends, but then we learn something about them. It’s like, “Wow! I never knew this about you!” To have, for me, a complete stranger really just open their heart and their experiences, and be that vulnerable on an episode? It was just like, “OK, she’s … This is a real-deal human, and I want to be like her when I grow up.” Yes.
JEFFRIANNE: That’s interesting. Because Jamika, was she your first, or if not, one of your first guests?
JEREMY: She was! Episode 5? Four or five?
KYLA: She was like four or five, in there; one of those two. She was in there, yeah.
JEFFRIANNE: Yeah. That is pretty amazing, given how many more episodes you’ve recorded over that time.
All right. Dream guest? Dream guest.
JEREMY: We were talking about this.
KYLA: Yes, my dream guest has nothing to do with computing. It’s just Michelle Obama. That’s all.
JEFFRIANNE: I knew you were going to say that.
JEREMY: I wonder how.
Oh, my goodness. Hmm… I’m not really sure. I feel like it would honestly be someone who is a musical artist who uses technology in what they do.
KYLA: Okay. I could see that. I can see that.
JEREMY: I feel like Beyonce would be cool. Like, think of all the really innovative tech-related content that she has produced, and how she’s thought about – really thoughtfully – how to incorporate us, as the audience, in using technology.
KYLA: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah.
JEFFRIANNE: Well, I’m pretty sure she is going to do that at her concerts, right?
JEREMY: Oh, yeah.
JEFFRIANNE: I know that is going to happen when she goes on tour.
KYLA: Yeah, definitely.
JEREMY: Of course! Of course.
KYLA: But I would say…
KYLA: To quickly talk about favorites; it’s not a specific episode, but we did this series – we’re in the series – about just navigating the graduate school process, and I’ve been really enjoying that content. We talk about everything from “is graduate school correct for you?” to getting mentorship, advising, writing your proposal; just demystifying all of those pieces of the PhD that you don’t learn in a classroom, that you’re just expected to know by osmosis. I’ve been really appreciating that series.
JEFFRIANNE: I think that’s a really important point, because you know some folks who haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast might think it’s just focused on career pathways, right? But you all are doing so much more than that in your content and the conversations. Right? You are doing really practical things like you just talked about, that would be very, very helpful for maybe someone who is thinking, “Oh, I don’t know if I have what it takes to go to graduate school.” Like you said, that whole demystification process, I think, goes a long way for your audience; to know that you two are just living, breathing examples of what’s possible. The fact that you do it in such an accessible way, I think, is really important for anyone listening in hearing what you all have to say.
JEFFRIANNE: All right. So, let’s shift gears a little bit. Well, not really. Let’s continue on the conversation around mentorship. Jeremy, I know that you actually did something really, really cool – or are in the midst of doing something really, really cool – related to mentoring as it relates to national academies, right?
So, if you all could talk about it? You’ve already talked about how you all have kind of served as mentors for each other; the peer mentorship thing. You’ve talked about formal and informal mentoring, but let’s talk a little bit. Let’s drill down a little bit more about how, specifically, that’s important and how important it is to build a culture of mentorship for Black women, particularly for those women, those folks who might be underrepresented in their programs and departments. We will start with you, Jeremy, because I know you want to share out that really important thing that you’re doing as it relates to mentoring.
JEREMY: Okay! Well, I was recently asked to join a roundtable on mentorship, well-being, and professional development as part of the National Academies of Science and Engineering in Medicine roundtable.
JEFFRIANNE: Huge deal!
JEREMY: A really big deal.
KYLA: Big deal.
JEREMY: I am amazed, in awe, thrilled, excited to be connected to some of the foremost thinkers in those three spaces. You know we are still in the early stages, right? So, we haven’t really identified exactly what our task is going to be, but I love the fact that they are seeing this as something that’s a relationship. Right? Like, it’s not mentorship by itself, or well-being by itself, or professional development by itself; it is where those things overlap, intersect, and what’s important at those intersections. So, hopefully we’ll be unpacking that through the next few years, and you’ll see events and things related to that where you can join in those conversations and help us move the national conversation forward around those things.
But I think from our podcast standpoint, you know there’s a lot of anecdotal things that we can say because we haven’t studied them yet. It’s something that our heart, as researchers, is really to look into this stuff, and understand it, and unpack it. Right now, I would say there are all of those themes throughout the podcast episodes with the interviews of various people. The strongest, most compelling thing that we have seen is: Every single guest has at least one person who told them they’d belong in computing. They said to them with words, “You should be a computer scientist. Have you thought about pursuing computing?”
JEREMY: Without that individual making that statement to them – someone that they respect and they trust, saying ”you belong, you should,” without that one person, they say they would not be in this space. That’s huge!
KYLA: Yeah. It’s monumental. You think of all the time a person has in their entire life, and then you saying words to them changing their whole trajectory.
JEREMY: I mean, it’s almost like one of those things where it’s like, “Wow! If we are more intentional about the relationships we build with students…” Right?
JEREMY: This is mostly when they are younger. There are a couple people who that happened to them in college. So, they made the transition in college. But large in part, this is during your youth, when you’re middle-school, high-school aged.
KYLA: Those formative years.
JEREMY: Just having somebody that you trust say, “This is an option for you. You are really good at this, this, and this. You should consider a career in that.” It will change someone’s life, and the opportunities that they have.
JEREMY: So, having a mentor when you’re younger, you may not call them your mentor. Right?
JEREMY: Like, they may be that lady at church who always has something to say…
KYLA: Right, always talking to me.
JEREMY: Or, it could be I go to this afterschool program, and there is this one teacher who just always is telling me opportunities and things like that. It could be a counselor. It could be anybody!
KYLA: Anybody, yeah. Yeah, and I would say, too – a lot of times, mentorship involves the transfer of information that you wouldn’t normally have access to. I would say one thing that I definitely noticed in graduate school was that other cultures – and also undergrad, other cultures have access. Because let’s say if someone comes and they’re an international student, and they have these kind of almost built-in communities and networks where they are passing not exams, but homework to each other; there is this collective knowledge and strategies.
KYLA: So much that underrepresented people who originate in America don’t necessarily have that trickle-down that history, or that legacy, of information and knowledge, and people who have been there that say, “Hey, let me tell you. Let me show you the game.”.
So, that’s why mentorship is important: Because Black women and girls may not have that network where they end up, so there might be isolation there. But at least with mentorship, you can have those strategies, and have just a way to cope and not feel like you are the only person who doesn’t get it. But you don’t realize, the other people do get it, they get it because they have information from other people.
JEREMY: Yeah, and the community piece is a big one.
JEREMY: I was talking to a student recently and said, “You know, in the Black community, we are a communal people, right? Everything is centered around family and, literally, your community. Right? Like, the church community, the YMCA in your community; these relationships that you build where you are.
So in the absence of that, when you take someone and put them in a space where they do not have those relationships…
KYLA: And everyone else does.
JEREMY: Right. You know the whole “it takes a village” thing, and you don’t have a village, right? You don’t have elders. You don’t have siblings. You don’t have cousins and them over there. You don’t have any of that, and your family doesn’t have the context and can’t help you and support you. It becomes against our nature to stay in a space like that. So, I think that’s important to acknowledge.
KYLA: Absolutely – and I love how we have lots of diversity and inclusion efforts in industry and academia, but you are recruiting someone into a place where they may not have support. So, I think a lot of the efforts should first start in-house to try to create this community of support. It doesn’t have to be all people who look alike. Just making sure that someone coming in, who may not have that natural, found community has a place that they can go so that they can have those same benefits.
Because yes, we can say, “We recruited this many people, and that many.” Okay. Well, what about the community that’s there for them? What about the retention? What about all these other pieces? I think it starts in-house first, and then, out of the house.
JEFFRIANNE: Love that! Okay. Just a couple more questions before we jump into our Q&A.
So, we’ve been talking a lot about the post-secondary landscape and doctoral, graduate areas. What kinds of things can we do to strengthen the meaningful and influential pathway, or participation, of young girls of color? Maybe in the K12 space – particularly in the early K12, like the PK through five space: What kinds of things should we be doing to bolster the exposure and encouragement of younger girls?
KYLA: I’m just thinking back to, as someone who was always interested in computers, what I would’ve wanted to see. I think that having access to people, to programs, to initiatives that are around computing in an accessible way. Because I was a nerd, if you told me there was a computer over there… Like, you know how people say, “Oh, yeah, you lure kids with candy into a van?” No. If you had a computer in that van…
But all jokes aside, making it accessible. I just really wanted exposure. I wanted someone to tell me what it was. Just having low-hanging fruit, even in media and society; just having computing, and lots of people being part of the conversation.
My husband watches “NCIS” all the time, and one of the scientists is always a woman. Now, they have a woman of color on there, and I’m like, “That’s going to do so much for Black women; just being able to see someone who is in a position.” Yes, it’s a fictitious show, but you can see this person doing all these experiments, and all that. We need that for computer science.
The example was… I forget what it was, what show came out, but I think forensic science had a huge burst when… I forget which show it was. Maybe “Forensic Files?” Who knows? But, people wanted to major in forensic science, and it just skyrocketed because of the influence of TV. What if we had a Black computer scientist on TV, doing something cool, solving something? What if Jack Bauer, from 24, was a Black woman?
KYLA: I’m serious! You know, just someone or the people at CTU who are doing all that. Because I’m like, if we can make computer science look cool at an early age, we won’t have so many fights to battle. We won’t have so many things that we have to overcome, and I don’t have to have in my head, “Oh, I need to get a Dragon Ball Z shirt and oil up my hair to be a computer scientist.” You know? I would feel like, “Oh, no; I belong exactly the way that I am.”
JEREMY: Dragon Ball Z is fire, so I don’t even know why you threw that shade. (Laughter)
KYLA: But I don’t want to have to have the Dragon Ball Z shirt!
JEFFRIANNE: I don’t even know what that is.
JEREMY: But secondly, I agree that having role models is really what little kids need.
JEREMY: They want to see who they can become, and unless we’re present in those spaces, it’s really hard to know that this is something for me. That’s what did it for me.
JEREMY: Right? Because I’d been exposed to all those things, I knew countless job opportunities and directions that I could go in, but it wasn’t until I saw a Black woman in engineering with a PhD, that I was like, “I’m going to be her one day. That’s who I’m going to be.”
Literally, that’s all it took. I came home, and I was like, “Mommy, I’m getting a PhD in engineering.” She was like, “Okay! Let’s figure it out.”
JEREMY: Right? So, that’s all it really takes.
The stuff that we are doing, we have some of our – I guess most of our – episodes on YouTube because we think it’s important to have people to have access to see us, not just hear us. We go and visit schools. We are doing our best to have a physical presence in spaces because we know that that’s really inspirational for people.
But also, cartoons.
KYLA: Yes. We need all that too.
I would say, even another point of exposure: Dr. Shaundra Daily, who was one of our recent guests – her two daughters, she had them when she was in graduate school. So, every Black woman that they know has a PhD or was getting a PhD. So, when they were little, they would immediately call every woman “Dr. Such and Such” as their name, because she just assumed, “Oh, all Black women have PhDs.” So, that? I was like, “This is amazing.”
It’s just the power of what … She never said, “Hey kids, all Black women have PhD’s,” but it’s what you see around you, and what you grow up in that becomes part of your culture and what you believe. If we could just surround children with the fact that everybody belongs here, and it’s not something that’s novel to them, I think that would make huge strides.
JEFFRIANNE: That is so powerful.
All right. So, final question before we toss it to the Q&A. This is kind of a fun one, right? So, we’re going to go back in time, and hopefully, we won’t depress anyone in the process. Let’s go back 20 years to 2003. Okay? Y’all are … I don’t know, you are about three, four, or five years old, right?
KYLA: I’m a baby. I’m a fetus at that point.
JEFFRIANNE: So, let’s go back two decades; twenty years. What advice would you give your younger self?
JEREMY: Child… (Laughter)
KYLA: So, I guess I’ll start.
The advice I would give myself, because I will… I’ll just start off with who myself was back then. I was somebody who has always been super creative, super outgoing, but also, I felt I needed permission to do things. Things that other people… I guess I didn’t see myself doing? So, I would just say to be fearless, to learn everything, to meet everybody.
Like, there are so many things that I’m doing now that have come from relationships that I’ve developed in high school, college, grad school years. Meet everybody. Learn everything you can. Talk to people who are different from you. You can learn so much from other people’s cultures. But mostly, the not being afraid to do everything.
So for me, dance was my love. I would get on stage. I would dance, I would act, but you couldn’t get me to sign up for this computer science class.
KYLA: It took a lot of convincing for this computer science class that was literally something where I just put my name down on paper at school. I just had so much turmoil around that, but I could do all of these other outgoing-ish things. So, just being fearless.
JEFFRIANNE: I love it.
JEREMY: I was in high school. So, full transparency. I was, and I think I was a very serious student where it was like grades were everything, and I needed to do well on all of the things – and it was a lot.
KYLA: That is a lot.
JEREMY: High-achieving human, and so I think I would tell myself to relax. You know? Like, just give yourself grace. It’s OK to not get the highest grade, and everything will work itself out. I feel like culturally – and this was not my parents, okay? For a while, I blamed them, and then I realized I was the problem. Right? I had really high expectations of myself, and I would just tell myself to just chill.
KYLA: I could see that.
JEFFRIANNE: That is great advice for today, right? I’ve received that for my 46-year-old self. I’lll take it. I’ll take that.
JEREMY: I need to tell myself that now too.
KYLA: Right? It’s certainly good advice. It permeates the years.
JEFFRIANNE: Grace, and be fearless. I love it! That’s my theme now for 2023.
All right. So we are going to jump into the Q&A. If folks have questions, please feel free to submit your questions through the Q&A module. We’ll try to get through as many as possible.
First question: How can computer software design improve the diversity of future technologists?
KYLA: Hmmm … There’s a lot in that question. So, I’m going to make some assumptions about this. One way to read this question is: How can the way that we design software improve the diversity, or how does the software itself? I will start with the first question.
The way we design software can be improved by literally just including more people at the table who don’t necessarily have a tech background. One example: If, let’s say, you are creating a learning science technology that is going to implicate lots of kids, bring the kids to the table! Involve them in the process. Kids who look like the whole United Colors of Benetton ad.
Bring all the kids to the table. Is that brand still out? I don’t know.
JEREMY: I don’t know.
KYLA: It’s not still out? I don’t know what I’m talking about.
JEREMY: I don’t, and that’s okay.
KYLA: Anyways, bring everybody to the table because one thing that will happen as a response is that kids will say, “oh, this is an option? I didn’t realize this.” Even just the exposure.
I forget who was telling me this story, that the same thing happened but with Black men in cardiac surgery. So, there was this intervention where they wanted to create a cardiac intervention for Black people in a community; however, they were like, “Um, these people are a bit older. Let’s train the young people in their lives to know how to run this study and get the data back.” They did a longitudinal study, and it was something ridiculous – like 90-something percent of the men who participated in that study were now in healthcare doing something related to cardiac.
I will find out after I remember who that was who told me this the other day. I’m like, it really is as simple as involving people in the process. There was no coding done. They weren’t, you know, doing open heart surgery, but involving them in the thought process for the design and everything. I think that’s how we get more diverse talent, because that involvement stuck with them for a long time, and when it came time to choose what you’d like to go into, this was something they had experience and exposure with.
JEFFRIANNE: So, the next question is connected to the notion of diverse talent. How can recruiters better source diverse talent, and do you have any suggestions for pipelines or methods?
JEREMY: If you are interested in Black people in computing, then I would definitely start with the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences. IMCS is a great resource for identifying Black talent in computing. There is a listserv that we have that is for African Americans who have PhD’s in computing.
KYLA: Or doing research; you might be a grad student.
JEREMY: Yeah, there are students in there. There are people in the industry. So, sharing it out through that listserv is a great way to do that. Dr. Kinnis Gosha, who is at Morehouse College, would be the person that you would reach out to if that is something you are interested in.
KYLA: Even more, the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing is an excellent conference that is usually in the early fall. There is basically, I think, a two-day career fair – at least – where you can get a booth, the students submit resumes, you can have great interaction with mostly grad students, but there also are undergrads that come to the conference as well. It is just an excellent way to get not only diverse talent, but talent that is interested in their success. So, it’s a great place.
NASBE is also, the National Society for Black Engineers conference. Both of us have participated at NASBE, and still do participate in NASBE. They have a huge career fair where you’re like, NASBE has what?
JEREMY: Around 10,000 people attend that conference annually.
KYLA: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. So, you’ll get all sectors of tech.
JEREMY: That’s in March.
JEFFRIANNE: Coming up!
Okay, this next question … The message consistently to young women and girls is “coding.” This is a miss to me. What are your thoughts on talking about mapping passion to tech versus “you must code.”
JEREMY: I mean for me, that’s it. Like, that’s what you would do, right? What do you love? Then, how does that relate to technology? How would you link those two things?
JEREMY: Human-centered computing is probably where you would exist, if that sounds like you. Human-computer interactions, somewhere in that space.
KYLA: UX design.
JEREMY: Human factors, and UX. That doesn’t necessarily mean code. Every sector of industry needs tech. So, what is it that you are passionate about, and then, how could that relate to technology?
KYLA: Yeah. I would like to say I agree 100%, and I would even take the word coding out and talk about the design aspect as well, because there’s so much that happens in the design phase. But, I also want us to be careful not to farm women and minorities straight to human-computer interaction in human-centered computing – but I do think it helps you to get in the door as you are young. Then, you can now take a wealth of computer science classes, and you may decide, “You know what? Actually, I like algorithms!” Or, “I like machine learning.”
But to get you in the door, we might have to give you something that is a little more applicable to where you are in life, and how you can make things more relevant to you. I think Dr. Gloria Washington, at Howard University, she has a student who was studying how to mathematically look at African-American hair, and do analyses, and recommend products. So, this is a huge example of: Even if you are interested in hair, there is a way to put hair and technology together. There’s technology in everything, like Jeremy said.
JEFFRIANNE: All right. Final question, and this is directed at Kyla. What does your shirt say, and where did you get it?
KYLA: It says: “I am black history in the making,” and it was at Target last Black History Month. Target is what you call Target when you’re fancy, but yes.
JEFFRIANNE: There’s also some other really great Modern Figures merchandise, like T-shirts. Right?
JEFFRIANNE: So, let’s take an opportunity to share with the audience where you can get some ‘The Modern Figures’ merch.
JEREMY: Our merch is on our website. You can go to ModernFiguresPodcast.com, or ModernFiguresInc.com, either one, and it’ll take you directly to our site. There is a storefront that you can look at.
KYLA: Yes, and if you want something that is not there, message one of us and we will make it happen.
JEREMY: Yeah. You can see Kyla has earrings that were made for us of our logo. So…
KYLA: Yeah, I had earrings made.
JEFFRIANNE: Love, love – and Kyla’s going to be buying you that “I am a computer scientist” T-shirt, right?
DR KYLA McMULLEN: Yes.
JEFFRIANNE: Right? And making that. It actually sounds like …
KYLA: It’s going to be in the store. Thank you, JeffriAnne for the reminder.
KYLA: It is going to be. I’m writing this down.
JEREMY: Oh, gosh. This is so crazy.
JEFFRIANNE: It sounds like you need to make that part of your new merch, right?
KYLA: Yes! I love it. We’re going to call it “The JeffriAnne.” We name shirts after people.
JEFFRIANNE: There we go. I love that. I love it.
Kyla, Jeremy, thank you all. Thank you both so much. Thank you to our audience. This has been such a great, great conversation. I have thoroughly enjoyed talking with you all. I think I’m overdue for another episode on the podcast.
KYLA: Right? Yeah.
JEFFRIANNE: Hit your girl up! I think it’s time for me to get back on there.
At this point I’m going to toss it back to Stephanie Weber, who has got some closing remarks that she’s going to make as we close out our webinar. Stephanie, I think you are muted if you want to? There you go.
STEPHANIE WEBER: I am muted, JeffriAnne!
I want to thank Dr. Wilder, Dr. McCullen, and Dr. Waisome for a really inspiring webinar today, and thank you all for joining us for NCWIT’s Conversation for Change: Elevating Modern Figures in Computing.
We would really appreciate your input and feedback on this session, and you can do so by responding to NCWIT’s survey. There are several ways you can do this. There’s the QR code you can scan on your screen now. We will put a link in the chat, and you will also be emailed an invitation by our evaluation team after the conclusion of this event.
Finally, we invite you to join us for our next Conversation for Change webinar. It will take place on March 2nd. It’s entitled “The State of Tech Diversity” with Dr. Ivory Toldson and Dr. Allison Scott. We’ve pasted the registration link in the chat, and you can also find out more by visiting the Conversations for Change web page on NCWIT’s website.
Thank you again for joining us for today’s presentation, NCWIT’s Conversation for Change: Elevating Modern Figures in Computing. Have a great rest of your day! Goodbye.
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