As a young Black girl with a lifelong passion for computer science, Dr. Kyla McMullen resigned to the notion of becoming a social outcast in order to pursue the field.
“I thought I would have to turn into a white boy to become a computer scientist,” McMullen told BET.com.
A hip, Black computer science teacher who was able to speak both code and popular culture ultimately shattered that stereotype for her in high school, after which she continued on to become the first underrepresented woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Michigan. Now as an assistant professor to the Human-Centered Computing division in Clemson’s School of Computing, McMullen has found another way to shatter perceptions of what a scientist looks like.
"This generation needs to see that being a scientist is not a death sentence to a life of awkwardness,” McMullen said.
Her approach? Taking a note from Business Insider’s 2013 “50 Sexiest Scientists Alive” list (which included no Black females), she published her own list to increase the visibility of Black female scientists and “show that we do exist.” “Sexy Black Female Scientists” features a list of 73 women, including their current institution or employer, their education and a fun fact to emphasize their many dimensions.
Danielle Robbins Chukwumah, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA who loves to go on mud runs, uses math and statistics to study public health problems such as the HIV epidemic. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Ph.D., is a huge fan of the Korean pop group Big Bang and also happens to be a postdoctoral fellow cosmologist at MIT.
Starting in April, McMullen spent about one month collecting all of the information and data needed for the list and designing the layout. She had never blogged or published anything personal online prior to this project, but after being advised not to create the list by a reputable fellow Black female scientist, McMullen became even more motivated.
An overwhelming number of scientists, students, parents and teachers have reached out to McMullen to express their appreciation for what they believe to be a very overdue celebration. While a follow-up “Sexy Black Female Scientists” list is currently in the works, others have asked for lists spotlighting Black men, as well as a list for the “mature” professionals.
“[The lists] are not gonna capture everybody in the world, but I will put up as many people as I can to make sure that they’re still visible,” said McMullen.
In addition to celebrating these individuals with a dash of sex appeal, McMullen hopes that the current and future lists will serve as a resource for those looking for mentors and other inspirational resources.
“The face of science needs a makeover,” said McMullen. “We need a new approach because the current one is not working.”
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(Photo: courtesy MIchael Oliver)