Juan Gilbert working with students

Computer science professor Juan Gilbert (center), shown here working on a brain-controlled drone, makes an active effort to recruit and support students and faculty members from underrepresented groups.

Bernard Brzezinski/University of Florida Photography

Changing the face of computer science

The online documentary series Lab Daze highlights an aspect of computer science not historically associated with the field: Cool. Created in 2014 by computer science professor Juan Gilbert and his graduate students at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, the 10-episode series follows the lab’s activities in an effort to get younger students interested in the discipline. It shows that computer science can be glamorous, such as when it’s used in broadcasting sporting events, and that it can contribute to solving important social problems, for example in the realization of the next generation of voting machines. It affirms that computer scientists are relatable, not socially oblivious wearers of taped-up glasses.

It also counters the image of computer scientists reflected in the demographic data. Just 2% of tenured or tenure-track computer science professors in the United States are black, according to the most recent data; Gilbert is one of them. And, while just 1.5% of computing doctorate degrees awarded in the United States go to black students, and 20% to women, the majority of Gilbert’s lab members are both African-American and female. These are the people who make up the Lab Daze cast, demonstrating to viewers that computer science can be for anyone.

The makeup of Gilbert’s team is no accident. It comes largely from his proactive recruiting and mentoring efforts, driven by a firm belief that the United States needs a diverse workforce to remain a technological leader. “We need to have everyone at the table contributing,” Gilbert says. It also comes from his own difficult experience as the only black student in his Ph.D. program in the 1990s. This doesn’t have to be the norm for other minority students in computer science, Gilbert thought. He decided, “Well, if I get my Ph.D. and become a professor, I can do something about this.” And he has: By his count, his institution is the country’s top producer of African-American Ph.D.s in the computing sciences, and it has the most African-American tenure-track computing science faculty members.

Finding his own way

In many ways, Gilbert’s career path is the product of the mentoring he received as a student. Gilbert himself had no intention of becoming a professor when he enrolled as an undergraduate student at Miami University in Ohio. The first in his family to attend college, he was planning to get a degree, get a job, and “live happily ever after,” he recounted in 2002. His major—systems analysis, a subfield of computer science—seemed like it would get him there; students with that major found well-paying jobs right after graduating, he had found. However, a summer internship at an electronics company revealed that a corporate environment might not be the best fit for him. A career where he could choose his projects and control his work hours sounded ideal, he thought, but he didn’t know what that could be.

Inspiration came via his stochastic systems class. It wasn’t that he enjoyed the material; in fact, it bored him so much that he routinely fell asleep in class. But one day, the professor teaching the course, David Haddad, told Gilbert that he thought Gilbert would make a good professor. (Much later, Haddad told Gilbert that he had reached out to him because of what he had seen from Gilbert outside the classroom.) “It was a pivotal point,” Gilbert reflects. Until then, “being a professor was never on my radar.” He had never seen a black computer science professor and had concluded early on that it wasn’t for him. But that conversation with Haddad got Gilbert thinking, and after some research, Gilbert realized that being a professor was the job that he had been looking for.

Despite Gilbert’s enthusiasm about pursuing an academic career, he felt isolated during his Ph.D., he recalled in 2012. He was the only black student in his Ph.D. program at Ohio State University, and he had never met a black computer science Ph.D.-holder. The isolation was so discouraging, he said, that in his second year, when the professor he planned to work with didn’t receive tenure, he considered using the news as a reason to quit.

Gilbert’s outlook changed when, at the Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, he met Andrea Lawrence, an African-American computer science professor at Spelman College. She introduced him to other African-American computer science doctoral degree holders and Ph.D. students, and for the first time, he felt like he was part of a community. That feeling of connection motivated him to finish his degree, which he did at the University of Cincinnati, becoming the university’s first African-American computer science Ph.D. recipient. He also vowed to make sure that minority Ph.D. students after him would not experience the same isolation he felt.

Reaching Out

Since Gilbert became a professor, proactive recruitment has been a significant element of his effort to make good on this promise. He always keeps an eye out for talented minority students and potential faculty members at conferences and elsewhere. Just 3 years after becoming chair of the human-centered computing division at Clemson University in 2009, he had brought on five African-American computer science professors.

Diversifying faculty involves more than identifying promising candidates and presenting the opportunity, Gilbert emphasizes. “It does take effort to recruit people who sometimes don’t feel welcome in that environment,” he says. For example, some of the women he reached out to weren’t looking for faculty positions because academia didn’t seem like a good working environment. They told him, “I haven’t seen that many women happy in computing in the academy,” Gilbert says. So part of the recruiting process involved reassuring candidates that they would be supported by their fellow faculty members. Another important part was bringing the candidates to the campus. “They need to see people like them doing these kinds of things and get the opportunity to engage and talk to them,” Gilbert says. “That means a lot.”

Shaundra Daily is one of those whom Gilbert persuaded to take the faculty path. After finishing her Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010, she was pursuing entrepreneurial ventures and wasn’t at all interested in becoming a professor. “It didn’t seem like a career I could pursue and have a family life,” she says. But in 2011, Gilbert—whom she had met during her Ph.D. while visiting a friend who was one of Gilbert’s students—invited her to give a talk at Clemson. After that visit, Daily started seeing a professor position as a viable career option. Largely because of Gilbert’s deliberate recruiting, she joined Clemson’s computer science department as an assistant professor and later moved with him to UF, where she is now an associate professor. In fact, Gilbert seemed to have foretold her career path when they first met. He said to her, “One day I’m going to hire you,” Daily recalls, which she laughed at then.

Gilbert recruits minority faculty members to diversify the role models available to students. “I find that the diversity of the faculty also increases the diversity of the student body,” he says. But he doesn’t rely on this trickle-down approach alone; he also goes to the students directly. Every time he meets undergraduate students who he thinks have potential, he pulls them aside and asks, “Have you thought about graduate school? Have you thought about doing research?” Gilbert regularly speaks to undergraduates at historically black colleges and universities about the benefits of pursuing advanced degrees, including higher salaries and the opportunities to make important discoveries. 

One student he reached this way was Jessica Jones, who is now a doctoral student in Gilbert’s lab. Jones always had a passion for helping the community, but as an undergraduate student at Hampton University, she didn’t think this could be combined with her interest in computer science. Instead, she was planning to pursue computer science jobs in industry or government—until her department chair suggested that she chat with Gilbert, who was on campus giving a presentation. Jones was inspired to hear Gilbert describe how his work used computer science for social impact, including by creating culturally relevant education technologies and designing a universally accessible voting machine. When Jones later visited his lab, “I knew that’s where I needed to be,” she says.

Gilbert has received a number of awards for his student mentoring activities. But he sees a different sign of mentoring success: Many of his mentees have become mentors themselves. His students reach out to junior students at conferences and talk to them about graduate school. They host an outreach day to teach local middle school students about computer science and how to code. They work side-by-side with undergraduate and master’s students, helping the students through the research process. Some have mentoring highlights of their own. For Jones, it’s when mentees make a major breakthrough or finish a project because she helped them think through a roadblock. “A mark of a mentor is how many people their branches touch,” she says. “I think Dr. Gilbert is doing pretty well in that regard.”

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