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Dr. Kyla McMullen is the first African American woman to graduate with a PhD in computer science at the University of Michigan. When asked how she feels about her new title, the scholar replied “Bittersweet.” She explained that it’s gratifying to have the distinction of being the university’s first African American female to acquire a PhD in computer science, it reminds her of a sad reality: There aren’t enough men and women of color pursuing advanced degrees in computer science.
Out of the more than 1,400 Americans who received PhD’s in computer science from 2010 to 2011, less than a quarter were female, and a mere 1.2 percent – 16 people – were African-American, according to the latest Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey. Dr. McMullen has always had a passion for computer science and was nurtured throughout high school. Fortunately, the high school she attended had a special computer science track program. This meant exposure to a curriculum that most high schools lack, and the opportunity to take courses in computer programming and engineering early on.
If it were not for the advice of a guidance counselor — who’d recommended that she apply for UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholarship Program — she probably wouldn’t have considered acquiring a PhD. in the field. “It was an excellent opportunity,” says McMullen of the program. Interesting enough one of her two study buddies, Nwokedi Ibika, is coincidentally the first African-American to get a PhD. in computer science from Perdue University.