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MSN Hero-Juan E.Gilbert, PhD

The first African American to earn a Ph.D. in computer science was Clarence "Skip" Ellis, who got his degree from the University of Illinois in 1969. This was the same year I was born--in Hamilton, Ohio. What follows is a brief look into my own pursuit of a Ph.D. in computer science.

I graduated with honors from Hamilton High School in June 1987, at the top of my class. In high school, I had developed a love for science and had taken several chemistry, physics, and math courses. I decided to attend college and major in chemistry.

I received scholarship offers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Florida A&M University, Kenyon College, and Miami University (Ohio), to name a few. The University of Michigan was initially my top choice, but I changed my mind after the media reported racial incidents on the campus. I went to Miami University instead.

I wanted to attend Miami University for various reasons. First, it is 20 minutes from my hometown, so my family was nearby to provide additional support as I began my college career. Second, Miami University was well respected.

I began to take classes in the summer of 1987, majoring in chemistry. I took advanced chemistry courses in my freshman year and did well--earning a cumulative grade point average of 3.3. But majoring in chemistry was a very difficult task for me. During my freshman year, I started to think that chemists have to go on to graduate school before starting professional careers. This was a serious problem for me. At the time, my goals were to attend college, earn a bachelor of science degree, enter the workforce, and live happily ever after. I had no desire to attend graduate school.

So, as a result of my assumptions about careers in the field of chemistry, I decided to pursue another major. Following conversations with other students on campus, I changed my major to systems analysis. It is similar to computer science, except that systems analysis concentrates on the use of computers in problem solving. Through my research of the major, I discovered that Miami University's systems analysis graduates were getting jobs right out of college with very good starting salaries. This is what I wanted; therefore, I changed my major and started taking classes. During my sophomore year, I really enjoyed the coursework and was looking forward to a real job after graduation.

In the summer after that year, I was blessed with an internship from NCR Corp. in Dayton, Ohio. This internship was part of a scholarship that paid for my education and provided me with summer employment throughout my undergraduate years. During my first internship with NCR, I worked as a Unix systems administrator. I was very excited about his opportunity and looked forward to the internship.

On the first day, I received an assignment that I completed before the end of the workday. Needless to say, I was ready to go home after completing the assignment. But my boss informed me that I could not leave--I had to stay there and "look busy." I began to understand what it was really like to work in a corporate environment. It's not like being at home, where I could go play with my friends after finishing my chores. I spent the entire summer working on various assignments and learning more about the corporate culture.

When I returned to Miami University in my junior year, I was very disappointed. Although I had had a valuable experience during my internship at NCR, I wanted a career where I could control my own schedule and projects. I began to consider my career options. I did not want to change my major; nor did I want to attend graduate school. I began thinking about consulting and entrepreneurial options. However, I was not satisfied with those choices either.

One day in my stochastic systems course, I had a revelation. The course was taught by Dr. David C. Haddad, who was also Dean of the School of Applied Science at Miami University. During this course, I would frequently sit in the front of the classroom and fall asleep. I didn't like the course and still don't enjoy the subject. Dr. Haddad would frequently give the class handouts and begin with me. In order to give me the handouts to pass back to others, he would have to wake me up. One day, Dr. Haddad was passing out handouts and, as usual, he had to wake me up. He told me to see him after class.

I was expecting a scolding for dozing off, but this meeting changed my life forever. Dr. Haddad told me that I would make an excellent professor some day. He said, "If you get your Ph.D. in computer science, I will hire you." I thought it was a joke because I always slept in the class and never considered being a professor. In addition, I had never seen an African-American computer science professor and so had concluded that it was not a job for me. But after this conversation, I did some research on computer science professors. I learned that the pay was good and the hours were even better. There was one small problem ... I had to go to graduate school. So, I changed my mind again and decided to do it!

In 1991, I graduated from Miami University with a Bachelor of Science degree in systems analysis. I went to work for NCR Corporation full time because NCR paid for its employees to go to graduate school. Therefore, I applied to the computer science graduate program at the University of Cincinnati. At the time, I was required to take the GRE test. I was an excellent student but did not perform well on standardized tests.

This alarmed me, so I spoke with Dr. Carla Purdy, a computer science professor at the University of Cincinnati. She reviewed my grade point average and work experience and granted me provisional admittance into the graduate program--without requiring me to take the GRE. This was perfect! I started the graduate program at the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 1992. I attended classes in the evenings and worked in the day at NCR. I spent the next 3 years pursuing my master's degree.

In 1995, I received a master of science degree in computer science from the University of Cincinnati. I also applied to the computer science Ph.D. program there but was denied acceptance. I was told that I needed more research experience in order to get into the program. I had also applied to the computer science Ph.D. program at The Ohio State University and was accepted. This was good news!!

In the fall of 1995, I left NCR and attended graduate school at The Ohio State University. I spent the next 2 years in Ohio State's Ph.D. program in human-computer interaction (HCI), only to find out that Ohio State's sole HCI professor had been denied tenure. Therefore, I was attending Ohio State without a research advisor and was at another crossroad in my life.

During this time, I had attended the Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences (CAARMS), where I met Dr. Andrea Lawrence, chair of the department of computer science at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She was the first African-American computer science professor I had ever seen!! This was a blessing for me. I truly believe that Dr. Lawrence is my "angel." She introduced me to a network of African-American computer scientists and provided me with a new motivation when I needed it the most. As a result, I was determined to complete my Ph.D.

When I returned to Ohio State, I had some decisions to make. I didn't want to change my focus, which forced me to pursue graduate studies at other universities. One morning, I picked up the phone and called Dr. Purdy at the University of Cincinnati and explained my situation to her. She told me to apply again to that university's program. She also suggested that I look for an advisor before I applied. I called Dr. Chia Y. Han, an HCI professor at the University of Cincinnati. I had completed an independent study with him during my master's degree. Dr. Han was very receptive; he told me to apply to the program and that he would do his best to make sure I got in.

In the fall of 1997, I transferred back to the University of Cincinnati to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science under Dr. Han. During my doctoral studies at this university, I received a call from Dr. Haddad, my undergraduate professor. He offered me a visiting instructor position at Miami University in the systems analysis department. Dr. Haddad kept his word! He gave me a job.

In June 2001, I became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Cincinnati. Upon completion of my Ph.D., I accepted a faculty position at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, in the computer science and software engineering department, which is where I am now.

This story is an illustration of mentoring and motivation. Dr. Skip Ellis paved the way, Dr. Haddad offered a goal, Dr. Purdy gave me the opportunity, Dr. Lawrence provided inspiration, and Dr. Han gave me the guidance. Without these mentors, who knows where I would have landed.

Even as a professor at Auburn University, I am still being mentored--by other computer science professors. I truly believe that being a mentee never ends and that if you're ready to receive guidance, you'll be able to find someone out there who can be a mentor for you.

Now, I get to return the favor--I am mentoring several others who are looking for their own inspiration, guidance, and opportunity.

*For further information about Dr. Gilbert's current research efforts, eduation, and experiences, please contact him at gilbert@Eng.Auburn.Edu. Dr. Gilbert is also profiled along with nine other African-American scholars in the 3 January 2002 issue of Black Issues in Higher Education.