May 17, 2021

An Interview with Valerie Nelson, #Tapia2021 Industry/Government Panels & Workshops Deputy Chair

Valerie Nelson is the 2021 Tapia Conference Industry/Government Panels & Workshops Deputy Chair and an Applied Research Mathematician at the Department of Defense.  We spoke to Valerie about her work and what she is looking forward to in #Tapia2021.


Tell me about where you grew up and what your parents did?

I’m from Maryland, right outside of DC. I grew up there and never really lived anywhere else.  My Dad was in military and took some college classes and Mom was a nurse.  My Dad grew up poor and my mom weren’t well off so they were both incredibly hard workers.  He entered the Marines and went into business selling life insurance. He went from having very little to being comfortable

How did you get involved in technology?

Growing up my mother told me that I was going to college.  That was engraved in my mind from a very early age but I didn’t know what I was going to study.  In High School I was in the science and technology program which had more rigorous graduation requirements.  I was required to do real research as a senior so I worked at Howard University working on treatment for sickle cell anemia.  It felt really good to do something that was important and working on something that was a problem in the AA and Hispanic community.  

When I went to Morgan State College, I still didn’t know what I wanted to major in.  My dad wanted me to be an Electrical engineer but that wasn’t exciting to me.  I remembered that my dad always said – you need to know how to read and math is the foundation of everything. I decided to go into math and I enjoyed it and was pretty good at teaching others.  

My first full time job was at Bank of America in commercial real estate but then ended up at the Department of Defense and I have been there ever since as a mathematician.  I’ve worked on a lot of problems and leading efforts to make the most of technology. I became the first black female to graduate from Department of Defense Applied Math Program. When I went to the DOD I had the opportunity to go back to school.  I was a single mom and their offer was an opportunity to get paid while going to school. I got both my masters and PhD and got paid at the same time while having time off.  I simply had to commit to a certain amount of time to work for the DOD to “repay” my tuition.


What are you working on now?

Right now, I am focused on data science.   I have created a data science curriculum which is constantly evolving. I am the data science literacy lead for the agency.  For the last few years, I have been assessing the specialized training people need.    National Cryptologic School is part of the agency and I have worked there the last 8 years.  Recently I have also been training faculty and staff on effective ways of training the workforce.  One of my new efforts is developing a framework for instructional escape rooms. I create escape rooms that are fun, active learning experiences and you can do it online – use the activity and behavior of students to measure mastery of competency of the students.   People can use the data on the behavior on how well they are doing. They are intentionally designed to measure student competency.  I have  been presenting on this and have a paper coming out and I am writing a book.    My daughter and SO are tired of the escape rooms. 

How did you become involved in the Tapia Conference?

Last year I was asked by DOD to support the conference as a sponsor. I did three things:  I was  a DC evaluator, I was a judge in the  student poster presentations, and I was a recruiter.  I had heard about it but never attended it. I gave very detailed feedback to the students.  

We are celebrating 20 years of Tapia Celebrating Diversity in Computing this year.  What are you looking forward to this year?

I am really excited about the opportunity to serve Tapia in this capacity.  I was Impressed by conference last year. Doing it all virtually was a challenge and so many activities went on well.  I am expecting bigger and better things to come. I think the pandemic and all the losses on the planet will lead to real change is coming.  I think a lot of good has come out of the pandemic – more people are being connected now.  In some cases because a lot is being done on line forces people not to discriminate.  Not meeting a person means personal biases are being eliminated in some cases.  People can see the content before they see the person, give the credit and not dismiss them.  

What would you like to see change in Computing in the next 20 years?

In the next twenty years we won’t need diversity in computing.  We won’t have to look at differences in people – everyone will have a fair opportunity to contribute. We need to come together to survive.