IT and CS grad students prepare for leadership roles
“NJIT wants to attract high-achieving students and faculty from diverse populations.” – Dr James Geller, NJIT
“Women must be at the table, creating, designing and developing innovations.”
– Elizabeth Ames, Anita Borg Institute
By Adriene Marshall
Colleges and universities across the country are eager to welcome qualified students into their computer science and information technology (CS/IT) graduate programs. But while overall minority enrollment in these programs has risen slightly in recent years, National Science Foundation data and other sources show that the same is not true for women.
“The pipeline of women undergrads who could later pursue advanced degrees in CS has shrunk drastically, from a high of thirty-seven percent in 1985 to only eighteen percent today,” says Dr Denise Gammal, director of research and corporate partnerships at the Anita Borg Institute (ABI, www.anitaborg.org). “The number and percentage of CS doctoral degrees awarded to women has increased over the past decade, but the percentage of women receiving CS masters degrees has dropped from thirty-four percent in 2001 to only twenty-eight percent in 2010.”
The disparity is even greater for women from underrepresented minority groups. “African American women earn less than three percent of CS masters degrees and Latina women earn less than one percent, according to the National Science Foundation,” notes Gammal. “A total of merely eighty-three African American women and forty-four Latinas nationwide have received CS doctoral degrees over the last decade.”
Gammal believes that persistent unconscious biases starting at an early age may keep women from pursuing CS careers. “It takes appropriate curricula and encouragement from parents, teachers and counselors for talented girls and young women to explore and pursue their interests in CS/IT,” she says.
Grad students pick up the mantle
“Emerging technologies will transform a wide range of industries, from entertainment to retailing to healthcare,” says Elizabeth Ames, ABI VP of strategic marketing and alliances. “To have an impact on this transformation, women must be at the table, creating, designing and developing these innovations. It is an opportunity for women to change our world. Who would not want to be a part of that?”
Eric Dortch is director of student services for the Chicago chapter of the Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA, www.bdpa.org), and Midwest regional VP. He says that about 35 percent of students who are involved in the BDPA go on to pursue postgraduate degrees.
“Technology is no longer a hobby or pastime,” says Dortch. “Technological familiarity is necessary in order to succeed.”
Dortch advises students beginning their careers in CS to “understand that technology is a very big field and you can never master it all. Focus on one area that interests you and become good at it. From there you will be in a position to branch out even further.”
The mission of the BDPA is to give underrepresented minorities a venue to network and help position them to take on leadership roles. “The reason why we do what we do is not for accolades but to encourage young students to pick up the mantle,” says Dortch.
Trenton Johnson: MS in IT at Carnegie Mellon University
Trenton Johnson is in his final semester at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU, Pittsburgh, PA). He’s pursuing a masters in IT with a focus on mobility. Originally from Columbia, SC, Johnson is studying at the CMU college of engineering. He’s part of the bicoastal program of CMU’s Information Networking Institute (INI), where IT masters students spend the first half of the program at Carnegie Mellon’s main campus in Pittsburgh and then travel to Mountain View, CA to complete the second half of the program at CMU’s Silicon Valley campus.
“In the bicoastal program, I have the opportunity to build practical software engineering experience and to collaborate with a strong network of industry professionals in the heart of high-tech innovation,” notes Johnson. The students complete hands-on projects with organizations like Google, NASA, Adobe and more.
Johnson received his 2011 undergraduate degree in computer engineering at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He minored in software, and found that he was actually more interested in the software side of things. “I wanted to be fluent in the design and creation of software at all consumer levels,” he explains. “I thought that going for my masters would enrich my abilities and increase my marketability along the way.”
At the INI, grad students have the freedom to select from a diverse array of courses and electives, Johnson notes. “My classes have included a delicious gumbo of CS and general tech topics. I have taken courses on parallel computing, data visualization, iPad development, web application development, creating electronic gadgets that use exotic sensors, and machine learning.” After he receives his MS in 2013, he will join IBM’s Watson Solutions team as a software engineer.
The INI program has an internationally diverse student population, says Johnson. “It’s an enriching environment. The world gets smaller every year thanks to technology, and the importance of being internationally savvy is one of the great takeaways from my time at CMU. Notions of race, color and ethnicity fade away when it’s time to get work done in a team.”
Worldwide diversity at Carnegie Mellon
Grad students at the INI come from Benin, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand as well as the U.S., says Dr Dena Haritos Tsamitis, director of the INI and director of education, training and outreach at CyLab, CMU’s cybersecurity research institute.
Of the 126 students at the INI, 22 percent are women, she notes. The university promotes gender and cultural diversity through the Women@INI student organization. The INI, in partnership with the Executive Women’s Forum, provides an annual merit scholarship for students from historically underrepresented populations in IT.
Eric McCary: PhD in CS at the University of Alabama
Eric McCary is a PhD candidate majoring in CS at the University of Alabama (UA, Tuscaloosa, AL). Even as a youngster growing up in Georgia, he liked the challenge of working with computers. “I enjoyed the complexity of it, that ‘aha’ moment when you’ve figured out something.”
McCary received his 2010 BSCS at Albany State University (Albany, GA) with a concentration in information assurance and security. Albany State is one of the 100+ historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. He was awarded a GEM fellowship to attend UA for his masters in CS and then again to earn his PhD.
“My course work revolves around smart grid security attacks and countermeasures,” he says. “That’s the area I’m really digging into and where I plan to continue after earning my doctorate.” For the past three summers, he has interned at the Aerospace Corporation (El Segundo, CA) in its cyber engineering department.
“Attending an HBCU like Albany State has had a positive influence on me,” McCary reflects. “There are not many African American men in my position, and I feel the need to be successful in order to make the way easier for others after me who will pursue their PhDs. The entire faculty here at UA will go out of its way to be helpful as long as I’m putting forth the effort to do well.”
The University of Alabama researches public safety
The CS department at UA is home to the Center for Advanced Public Safety (CAPS), which does research and offers software products and services in the areas of traffic safety, law enforcement, homeland security, criminal justice and health and human services. According to Adam Jones, director of public relations, CAPS receives over $5 million in annual research funds from more than twenty state and federal sponsors.
“CAPS strives to create innovative solutions through information technology research and cutting-edge software development to enhance the public safety and security of our state and homeland,” says Jones.
The University of Alabama actively recruits undergraduates from HBCUs and hosts the McNair Scholars, a program dedicated to matriculating and graduating students from underrepresented groups, says Dr Monica Anderson, UA associate professor of CS. About 12 percent of CS grad students at UA are women; another 5 percent are African American. “We also conduct research on how to teach computer science to a wide range of students effectively,” says Anderson. “To date, we have looked at how the tools in the introductory sequence affect how students view their ability to succeed.”
Dola Saha: PhD in CS at the University of Colorado-Boulder
Dola Saha is in the final year of her PhD program in CS at the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU). She received a 2002 CS undergrad degree from Netaji Subhash Engineering College (Kolkata, West Bengal, India).
Saha worked in industry for four years, first conducting wireless networking research and then in a job that focused on software development. “But I really liked doing research,” she says. “When I found that most of the better research-oriented jobs are not available for someone with an undergraduate degree, it motivated me to go to graduate school.”
Saha and her husband immigrated to the U.S., and found a perfect fit at CU-Boulder where they were both accepted. “I always wanted to go to CU-Boulder, not only because it is a highly ranked school, but because the telecommunications research lab is one of the best in the country,” she says.
There may not be many women in CS classes, but the community of women in computing is pretty big and growing fast, Saha notes. “If you like CS, keep doing it. I’ve found many men who respect what I’m doing. And, even though you are a minority, the experience overall is gratifying.”
Saha tries to be a role model for undergraduate women CS majors at CU-Boulder and for women who are new to the CS graduate program. She was chair of CU Women in Computing for two years. The group arranges social and technical events for women to gather and share experiences. “It helps students realize that there are other women in the department who work in interesting fields, but are also fun to hang out with,” she says. Most importantly, it gives them someone to look up to and think, “If she can do that, I can also do it.”
Saha is working on her dissertation, which centers on how to optimize the next generation of wireless radios. “I hope to work in a wireless industry research lab,” she notes. “However, I want to work on projects that are not just academically interesting, but those that will make the transition into real-world applications.”
The University of Colorado-Boulder offers innovative specializations
“Our interdisciplinary telecommunications program, which was founded more than forty years ago, is one of the first such programs in the U.S., combining the study of business, law, policy and information management to meet the needs of the evolving telecommunications industry,” says Carol K. Rowe, director of communications at the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “We introduced our PhD in telecommunications in 2011, recognizing that society has reached an inflection point in communications, networks, energy and security, and that doctoral students are best suited to push the frontiers of understanding and bring these fields together.”
CU-Boulder also offers two unusual programs: a PhD in technology, media and society, and an MS in information and communication technology (ICT) for development, which teaches students how to use ICT in developing nations and underserved populations. “These programs attract a high percentage of women and underrepresented minorities,” says Rowe.
Ketly Jean-Pierre: PhD in CS at Howard University
Ketly Jean-Pierre had hoped to attend historically black Howard University (Washington, DC) since she was an undergrad at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. After receiving her 2005 bachelors in computer information systems with a minor in business, she worked for two years at Eli Lilly and Company (Indianapolis, IN) as a tier 3 backup administrator. Then she enrolled at Howard, and in 2011 she received her masters in CS, specializing in security.
“Right after I completed my masters, Howard announced that it would offer a PhD in computer science,” says Jean-Pierre. “The chair of the department encouraged me to apply. I did and was accepted. It was kismet.”
Jean-Pierre finds the HBCU experience refreshing. “In industry, I was often the only black person and the only woman on the team,” she says. “Now, there are people who look like me either sitting next to me in class or teaching me, so there is constant motivation at every turn.”
Jean-Pierre has noticed the flagging interest in CS among underrepresented minorities and women. She cites a lack of prior engagement with CS and the shortage of role models as possible reasons for the disparity. When she receives her degree, she hopes to teach introductory CS courses at the college level using a constructivist active-learning approach.
“I would like to find ways to engage students who don’t know what computer science is about and who believe that computer science is not for them,” says Jean-Pierre. “I believe that once you engage students in ways that are interesting, fun and culturally relevant, they will want to learn and find ways to solve real world problems using computer science.”
Howard University fills gap for CS grad programs
“The CS grad program at Howard targets undergrads at HCBUs that don’t offer graduate programs in CS,” says Dr Legand L. Burge, III, professor and chair of the department of systems and CS at Howard.
Student life for grad students is supported through organizations and professional societies including the Association for Computing Machinery, the Upsilon Pi Epsilon Honor Society, the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, Engineers Without Borders and the Computer Science Graduate Student Association.
Marvin Andujar: PhD in human-centered computing at Clemson University
Marvin Andujar is pursuing his PhD in human-centered computing at Clemson University (Clemson, SC). He arrived in the U.S. from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 2004 and earned a dual bachelors degree in CS and mathematical sciences from Kean University (Union, NJ) in 2012. “While I was studying these two fields, I learned about math and computing theories and applied techniques,” he says.
Andujar made initial contact with his current advisor at the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference and during summer research programs. “After working with him as an undergrad, I decided to follow him to Clemson because I liked the culture of his lab and his work ethic,” he says.
At Clemson, Andujar eventually became graduate student leader of the brain-computer interface team. “I have always wanted to improve the lives of people in society by developing more user-friendly technologies,” he says.
Andujar is still deciding where he will take his research. “I will be doing an internship with Intel (Santa Clara, CA) as a user experience researcher,” he says. “This internship will allow me to compare the differences between the academia and industry research cultures.”
Being a diverse student is an advantage and a source of pride for Andujar. “I do not see myself as just another person obtaining a PhD, but as one of the few diverse students to obtain one,” he says. “As a project leader, my diverse background helps me understand the different views other people bring to the table and how to best apply their skills.”
Nafi Diallo: PhD in software engineering at NJIT
A PhD candidate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT; Newark), Nafi Diallo earned her bachelors in applied math and CS at Gaston Berger University (Senegal, Africa) in 1997. She continued her studies at Gunma University in Japan on scholarship and received her masters in civil engineering in 2002.
While studying in Japan, Diallo was exposed to image processing and geographic information systems, and attended a six-week seminar on the subject at Clark University in Worcester, MA. After completing her masters at Gunma, she returned to Senegal and applied to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI, Worcester, MA) where she earned her 2005 masters in financial math. From there, she worked as a financial software developer at Bloomberg Financial (New York, NY) and then at Acquire Media (Roseland, NJ).
“I enjoyed my work in industry, but I realized that I was more suited to teaching, which I had a chance to do when I was at WPI,” Diallo notes. “I loved interacting with the students and helping them understand difficult concepts.”
When she got laid off, Diallo took the opportunity to go back to school. “I thought a PhD in CS with the intention of entering academia would be a good option for me given my background,” she says.
Diallo is majoring in software engineering with a concentration in software correctness, computer vision and machine learning. She’s now in the beginning stages of preparing her dissertation. She’s also working with her advisor, Dr Ali Mili, on the Verified Software Initiative, a worldwide multidisciplinary cooperative project to develop automated tools that ensure large-scale software programs are doing what they are supposed to do.
NJIT strives for diversity among students and faculty
“NJIT’s Murray Center is a university-wide network that connects women students and faculty to each other and to the resources they need to succeed,” says Dr James Geller, professor and chair of the department of computer science. Geller notes that the school’s strategic priority is to be “nationally recognized for attracting high-achieving students and faculty from diverse populations.” A key objective is to achieve a hiring rate of 25 percent women and minorities among qualified candidates.
Of the students pursuing their masters and doctorates at NJIT, about 31 percent are women and 21 percent are minorities. Geller reports that NJIT’s CS department is in the 76 to 100 ranking bracket of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (www.arwu.org).
Kelly Moran: MS in CS at Tufts University
Kelly Moran is pursuing her masters in CS at Tufts University (Medford, MA), where she received her bachelors in CS and Spanish in 2009. “I enjoyed Tufts when I was an undergrad and I got to know the faculty,” she says. “It’s a tight-knit department and I thought it would be great to go back and take courses with professors I knew.”
Before returning for her masters, Moran worked as a programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (Boston, MA), a federally funded R&D center. “I decided to pursue my graduate degree because I enjoy research. I also wanted to broaden my horizons and deepen my skills,” she says. Her particular topics of interest are machine learning and data mining, and she is also focusing on software architecture. She would like to continue her work in research and is considering getting her PhD down the road.
Originally from upstate New York, Moran was practically born into the computer technology field. “Both my parents were programmers at some point, and my mother also taught computers to elementary school kids. So I grew up with that exposure to technology,” she says.
“Being a woman was probably tougher on the undergraduate level than as a grad student,” Moran observes. “As a grad student, knowing what I want to do and having a strong sense of self make it easier to deal with being in an environment where your colleagues don’t have the same life experiences as you.”
Collaboration is key in the Tufts CS program
The Tufts CS program “is highly collaborative, with our faculty conducting research jointly with other disciplines across the university, including chemistry, biology, medicine, nutrition, chemical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering and biomedical engineering,” says Gail Fitzgerald, department manager.
Fitzgerald is proud that 38 percent of the tenure track faculty are women. “We have a sponsorship presence at both the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conferences, where we try to recruit people of color and women into the program.”
Sudhamsha Palivela: MS in CS at Villanova University
Sudhamsha Palivela is currently enrolled in the masters in CS program at Villanova University (Villanova, PA). She received her 2005 BS in CS/IT at Jawaharlal Technological University in Hyderabad, India.
“During my undergrad studies, I took a lot of courses in math, IT and computer science. But I wanted to get a deeper knowledge of software engineering and I thought getting a masters would be the perfect thing to do,” she says.
Before continuing her studies, Palivela worked in industry for about two years as a PL/SQL developer. During that time she got married. When she and her husband immigrated to the U.S., she decided, with her husband’s encouragement, to pursue her dream.
“Villanova was my first choice because of its high ranking among schools in the U.S.,” Palivela says. Web technologies, databases and computing with images are among the topics she’s studying. She’s also a teaching assistant for a fundamentals of algorithms course that focuses on the Python programming language.
After getting her masters, Palivela would like to work in industry and get her MBA. “Somewhere down the line I would like to become an entrepreneur so I can give job opportunities to young people who want a CS career,” she says. “I recommend this field to anyone who is hard-working and willing to learn.”
Villanova provides interdisciplinary focus
Villanova’s CS/IT programs are both affordable and flexible, says Dr Vijay Gehlot, director of graduate programs in computing sciences. “Electives include courses from other departments to accommodate students’ interdisciplinary interests. In addition, the department offers a number of ‘special topic’ courses every semester based on current trends in the IT field.”
Two presidential scholarships are awarded each year to students from underrepresented populations across the graduate programs in the college of liberal arts and sciences, Gehlot says. The school’s recruitment efforts include the annual American Association of University Women conference.
Fausto Fleites: PhD in CS at FIU
Fausto Fleites, now a third-year PhD student at Florida International University (FIU; Miami, FL), studied CS at Havana University before emigrating from Cuba to the U.S. in 2004. He enrolled at FIU to finish his undergraduate degree while working full time at a courier agency.
“One of my professors recommended me for a job as computer programmer on the Florida Public Hurricane Loss Model (FPHLM) project,” Fleites says. Located at the International Hurricane Research Center housed at FIU, FPHLM is an interdisciplinary project designed to simulate and predict hurricane intensity, as well as a storm’s impact on the terrain.
“I was excited about this job because it was a perfect opportunity for me to put into practice all that I had learned and was going to learn,” he says with a smile. Under the supervision of Dr Shu-Ching Chen, Fleites led the CS team of FPHLM in 2007. He graduated summa cum laude in 2009 with a BSCS, and he received the Outstanding Graduate award for undergraduate study for his work in the FPHLM.
Fleites immediately enrolled in the MS/PhD program and continued to lead FPHLM’s CS team. His work with Chen at FPHLM and at Chen’s distributed multimedia information systems (DMIS) laboratory triggered his decision to pursue his graduate studies at FIU.
“I was very impressed when I learned about the research projects the PhD students were working on,” he explains. “One of them was event detection in soccer game videos, where they could automatically identify a goal event by analyzing visual, audio and temporal features. The training and hands-on experience I received at the DMIS lab was exceptional.”
Fleites earned his MS in the spring of 2012 and is still formulating his post-doc plans. “One option is to become a professor in a university; the other is to become a research scientist,” he says. “I’m currently doing very interesting work as an intern for TCL Research America involving multimedia research in TV systems.”
FIU: a decade of telecom innovation
“The FIU telecommunications and networking program is unusual. We’ve been offering it for about ten years, and there aren’t many graduate-level programs that focus exclusively on wireless and networking and security areas,” says Dr Mark Allen Weiss, professor and associate director in the School of Computing and Information Sciences. FIU confers degrees to more Hispanics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels than any university in the country, Weiss notes. The school has offered Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) fellowships to attract underrepresented groups into doctoral programs.
“We also encourage our own diverse undergrads to participate in FIU’s doctoral program,” he notes. “As students work to satisfy their senior project requirements, they have the opportunity to work directly with faculty.”
Jill Jermyn: PhD in CS at Columbia University
Before embarking on her graduate studies at Columbia University (New York, NY), Jill Jermyn was an accomplished violinist who had been playing the instrument since childhood. She studied with internationally known musicians in Philadelphia, PA and in Stony Brook, NY where she grew up.
“I’d been interested in music all my life, and I was practicing and performing all the time,” she explains. “In 2009 I started to get frustrated and bored because I wasn’t learning anything new.” She had always been interested in math and finally decided to take some courses in math and computer programming. “I didn’t know what was involved with computer programming, but I wanted to learn something new,” Jermyn says. “I really loved it, so the following summer I took more intensive programming classes and did very well in them.”
She got a job at a software company where she did research in wireless security. In 2012, after eight months with that company, she enrolled in grad school at Columbia and was soon accepted into the PhD program.
“I think there’s a similarity between music and programming,” says Jermyn. “When you’re programming, you think about events happening over a period of time. If the user performs an action, there is a specific consequence. If there are different threads in the program, you can see how they interweave with each other. The same thing happens in music. You can see the notes interacting with each other over time.”
Jermyn’s current academic focus is on cybersecurity and she works in one of the security labs at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. She hasn’t decided what she’ll do when she finishes, but she knows there are options in cybersecurity research as well as in academia.
“When I was in music, the gender balance was fairly even,” says Jermyn, who still finds time to perform musical recitals. “So it was a real shock when I walked into my first computer science class and I was the only woman. But everyone at Columbia is supportive. I’m involved in a few women’s organizations, like Women in Computer Science and the Society of Women Engineers. I want to help the younger generation of women get involved and discover computer science. It’s a good field to go into and we can do really well in it.”
Columbia has flexible course options
“At Columbia, students don’t have to follow a traditional computer science track,” says Dr Tiffany Simon, associate dean of graduate admissions at Columbia’s engineering school. Areas of specialization within the CS department include software systems, artificial intelligence, applications, vision and graphics, and digital systems.
About 22 percent of students in the graduate CS/IT programs are women, and less than one percent are from historically underrepresented minority groups. In addition to providing a home for the Society of Women Engineers, Columbia hosts a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. Simon notes that the school’s Engineering Achievers in Graduate Education (EngGAGE) program is in place to recruit college undergrads from historically underrepresented populations.
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