August 29, 2020

Jerome McClendon Tapia 2020 Doctoral Consortium Chair

Jerome McClendon

Jerome McClendon  is a Research Assistant Professor at Clemson University and the Tapia 2020 Doctoral Consortium Co-Chair.  We spent some time speaking with Jerome about his work and his passion for social justice and why he volunteers for Tapia.

Tell me about your background and where you grew up?

I was born in Phoenix, Arizona.  My father was working at the local post office and studying computers and electronics at DeVry after leaving the Air Force.  My mother was one of the earliest African American flight attendants for Northwest airlines.  They met in Phoenix and married.  When Northwest closed its base in Phoenix, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to be near family.  In Montgomery everyone in my family was active in the Civil Rights Movement.  We talked about making  sure we had equal access constantly.

My father is the type of person who can pick up a book and start reading it and can then go out and do what he read. He started in electronics and then became a master woodworker.  He built our house.  He literally read a book and built it. My love of learning and new ideas came from watching my father teach himself how to do things.  He told me that if it is in a book, you are capable of doing it. There is nothing that I can’t achieve.  When I was young, my father bought our first computer, a Commodore 64, and taught himself Assembly language from a book.

How did you become involved in Computer Science?

My dad got me started.  I began doing BASIC when I was in elementary school from one of his  books.  As I got older, we started doing Assembly language.  My dad inspired me to build my own digital calculator.  As I grew up, I continued to pursue computing.  As an African American, there weren’t many resources for me to tap into to find people who could help me.  There was not a lot of diversity in the field in Montgomery.  The few teachers I knew weren’t as helpful to me as  they were to the other students.  So, I did what my father taught me to do. I had a Gateway computer and using books I taught myself Visual Basic, Java and C++.   I also competed in various science competitions.  One of my experiences still drives me today.  I was in a competition, and the judge told me that he didn’t believe I had done the work myself, so I could not win.  I had built a graphing computer in Visual Basic.  The questions challenging me were not asked of other students.  Even the people who won the competition couldn’t believe I didn’t win. That experience is part of what drives my activism today.

I attended Auburn University for my undergraduate degree.  I found it difficult to adapt to the much larger classes at the University, and I found myself losing interest in school work.  What saved me was meeting Juan Gilbert my junior year.  Juan had approached a friend of mine, Greg Rogers, to work with him and asked if he knew any other programmers.  Greg suggested me.  Juan’s response was “but he goes to sleep in my class.”  Despite that Dr. Gilbert gave me the opportunity to do something I love and showed me how to apply it.  He reminded me why I fell in love with computing; I enjoy developing and building things people can use.  I ended up doing my undergraduate degree and Master’s with Juan Gilbert.  I always tell my students that you may struggle in the beginning, but it is really about how you finish.  Finding that right person who shows you that you do belong is important.  My research as a junior changed the trajectory of my life; I found how I could apply computing to real-world problems.  When Dr. Gilbert left to go to Clemson University, he invited me there to do my PhD.  I began working with Larry Hodges, the Director of the School of Computing.  My interests were in machine learning and AI.  I was always interested in machines being able to think.

My passion for machine learning drove me, and once again, I found myself doing what my father taught me, so I taught myself a lot of the basics.  After I completed my PhD, I stayed at Clemson University, first as a Post Doc and then as a member of the faculty.  Instead of staying in the School of Computing, I moved to Automotive Engineering. I really didn’t know anything about cars and engines, but our Provost wanted to bring Machine Learning to autonomous vehicles and help make Clemson a leader in that area.

What are the key projects you are working on today?

My first major project was the flagship project of the Department of Automotive Engineering, Deep Orange.  Every two years the students build a vehicle.  The project I worked on was in conjunction with Ford.  Leading the team was very much centered around project management and mentoring and motivating the students.  It was my first experience as a manager, and I focused on developing my people skills.  We’ll be unveiling Deep Orange in the coming year.

I’ve also felt a calling to do more for people, something that comes from the civil rights activism in my family.  With my good friends in bio engineering and the nursing departments, I began talking about the void in healthcare in rural and minority communities and how machine learning can be applied to address it.  We created the idea of a Digital Wellness Nurse to help provide people with healthcare in rural minority communities.

This research became even more urgent when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  There is a significant nurse and doctor shortage.   We’re now working on the COVID Wellness Nurse.  Who is being impacted by this virus?  African American and Latino communities are the ones being most impacted.  We are working to find ways to help doctors be more efficient and effective in providing care.  I’ve made sure that our team is very diverse, especially focusing on including  African American women who often have the problem of not being listened to by doctors.   We want to be sure to eliminate bias in machine learning.

How did you become involved in the Tapia Conference?

Juan Gilbert took me to Tapia in 2007.  It introduced me to a larger community of people who looked like me.  I see the people I met in Orlando even today.  Meeting people who look like me,  have my principles, and share my goals and who are  in computing was critical.  It is very important to know you are not alone in this fight.   I’ve come back many times to Tapia and participated in both the Poster Competition and the Doctoral Consortium

 Why do you think it is important for PhD students to participate in the Doctoral Consortium?

For me, the Doctoral Consortium was a way to get my ideas out.  At some conferences when you present you are speaking to mostly white males.  That limits you because you are not getting diverse feedback.  You need different perspectives looking at your work.  Students really need to attend these conferences and present at them.

What is important to you about Tapia?

Overall Tapia is an awesome conference.  What I learned from my family is that you want to go farther and support other people to do the same.   My grandmother only attended school until the 8th grade, but she knew it was important to support her children to go farther. My mother experienced a whole new world as a flight attendant, and because she got free travel, I was able to see the world–China, Japan and Rome.  My parents were thrilled to have me earn a PhD.  You always make sure your children go farther.  I want all of my mentees to go farther and open the door for other people.  Tapia helped me go farther, and I want others to be able to do the same.