Kyla McMullen is the talk of the academic world because she is the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the field of Computer Science at the University of Michigan. Modestly Kyla says “I don’t think there’s anything special about me” but recognizes how nice it is to receive recognition for being a first in a field she is so passionate about. For some it may be a tough reality to accept that there are clearly not enough women and minorities that are pursuing advanced degrees in Computer Science. In the 2010-2011 school year, of the 1400 Americans that were issued Ph.Ds in Computer Science just a quarter of that number were female and only about 16 were African American according to a recent survey done by the Computing Research Association. Although the odds were clearly stacked against her, Kyla was not discouraged to achieve her dream.
Kyla has always had a passion for Computer Science and that passion was noticed and cultivated throughout High School. She is a self-confessed nut for gadgets and has fond memories of her first family computer being a magical device. Kyla could not stay away and spent many nights wearing out her mouse by clicking through programs and file folders trying to understand how it all worked. Kyla was fortunate that her particular high school in Oxon Hill, Maryland had a distinctive computer science track for those students with the aptitude for the field. This definitely gave her a leg up on those other college bound students that were interested in computer science but whose high schools did not have any special classes for the subject. The specialized curriculum that Kyla was able to access at such an early age gave her an excellent springboard for computer programming and engineering before other high school seniors had even bought their college textbooks!
In a light-bulb moment during Calculus class in high school, Kyla was called down to her guidance counselor’s office. Like most students that are called down to “the office,” Kyla assumed that she was in trouble but for what she could not imagine. Instead her counselor wanted to recommend that she applied to UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholarship program. The Maryland based Scholarship program is at the forefront of attempts to increase diversity among future leaders in science, engineering and other related fields. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County Meyerhoff Scholarship program would give Kyla the springboard that she needed as she began to eye graduate schools. Reluctant to live in Michigan, some UMBC mentors coaxed her into making the visit and Kyla wound up falling in love with the University.
Kyla experimented out of her comfort zone at U of M before finding her wheelhouse. She had always been attracted to the human aspect of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) so she joined the “Intelligent Systems Group.” The group was compiled of a group of researchers that were interested in conducting theoretical, experimental, and applied investigations of intelligent systems. She also took a pass at the Spatial Audio field where her research involved constructing virtual environments that are maneuverable by sound alone. Kyla was also very passionate about promoting the advanced sciences within the minority community and she acted as both the President and the Vice President of Minority Engineers and Scientists and the Vice President of the Movement of Underrepresented Sisters in Engineering.
Armed with her newly minted PhD in hand, Kyla has landed a new job as an Assistant Professor in the Human-Centered Computing division of Clemson University’s School of Computing. She continues to challenge herself by pushing the envelope of her field and is a true trailblazer that has gone against the grain challenging what the classical Computer Scientist is “supposed to” look like.