1st black female computer science PhD student at Univ. of Michigan reveals lack of rolemodels
Kyla McMullen's graduation from University of Michigan in spring (Courtesy of Kyla McMullen)
“Am I really the first?”
That was the first thought that came to mind when Kyla McMullen, 27,
found out she would soon become University of Michigan’s first
African-American female computer science PhD alumna this past year.
McMullen later decided to go to the records office to search for
another fellow black female alumnus to connect with. But she soon
discovered that she was the only black female student in the history of
“Typically when you think of someone who is in computer science. you
think of a person who is a geek – with pocket protectors, suspenders
and highlighter pants,” McMullen joked in a phone interview with
theGrio. “African-American women often don’t’ think ‘Okay, I wanna be
While McMullen’s graduation this past spring marked a racial landmark
for Michigan’s computer science department, she said that her
experience in the department was sometimes “isolating” because she had
very few people to turn to for mentorship.
(Courtesy of Kyla McMullen)
“If you’re a black woman who’s interested [in computer science], you
think you’re going to be the only person that looks like you,” McMullen
said. “Everyone knows Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but there is really no
one famous that is African-American. The lack of role models or even the
lack of someone who looks like you is one huge factor that influences
why black women don’t pursue computer science.”
McMullen admits she did face some obstacles during the process of
obtaining her graduate degree. She remembers during her first semester,
the graduate student liaison told her, “I’ve never taught one of ‘you’
before.” McMullen never understood why the liaison called her ‘one of
you’ but she quickly brushed off that awkward experience.
It wasn’t until her second year at graduate school, where she really felt discrimination.
“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.”
But despite some minor roadblocks, the 27-year old has been able to
fulfill one of her lifelong dreams to walk the stage to receive her
graduate degree in computer science this past spring.
Growing up, McMullen always knew that computers and technology were
her calling. Being 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
But the bubbly, Michigan 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,”
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 as
well as the Scientists and 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.”
Follow Brittany Tom on Twitter @brittanyrtom