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31 July 2020

Kyla McMullen, Assistant Professor, University of Florida

Kyla McMullen Photo
Kyla McMullen

Tell me about your background, where did you grow up, what did your parents do?

I grew up in an apartment in Washington DC in the back yard of Catholic University. My mother was a secretary for a judge and my father was an upholstery delivery person.  Neither of them had gone to college.  But they always knew that I was going to go to college.  The area I grew up in was not very safe so I didn’t really go outside when I was growing up.  I even learned to roller skate in the house.  Early on I was fascinated by things that were computerized, I knew computers would be huge and I wanted to learn how to make computers do what I want them to do.  I was one of the kids who was considered a smart kid growing up.  When my parents had saved enough, we moved to Maryland when I was in 8th grade and bought a house.  I was able to take a test and go to a Science and Technology High School and select the Computer Science track.  I loved Computer Science much like I loved puzzles.  Once we had a house my parents, who had incredible generosity, took in foster children.  They eventually adopted my brother who has Down Syndrome.  We never had a lot but my parents wanted to share everything we had.

How did you become involved in Computer Science?

I was good in school but hated going.  I am more of a visual learner; I’d rather read it and do the work than sit in lectures.  Computer Science was the only thing that I truly found was fun.  When going to college I was originally going to go to a North Carolina College, but I needed scholarship money. Then my guidance counselor encouraged me to apply to the University of Maryland Baltimore County Meyerhoff Scholarship Program.  This program produces the most Black PhD/MD students in the country, and now have more than 30 cohorts.  They offered me a full scholarship and they sat me down and explained that we are going to get you ready to get a PhD before I even started college.  This program is a national model for minorities in STEM.  The program started with an endowment from Robert and Jane Meyerhoff and includes eight key factors that are needed for a successful program.  The program really becomes a family, the  older students mentor the younger students.  We all say once a Meyerhoff, always a Meyerhoff.  As part of the program I had internships and decided that I would pursue a PhD.  I visited University of Michigan as a Junior and fell in love with the school.   It offered a full college experience, football games and all, and I decided to attend.

How was your experience in your PhD program?

It’s really a crazy story. I started working with a very notable researcher as my advisor, but he really didn’t have time to be a PhD advisor.  I wasn’t getting a lot of feedback. I was working on making educational tools for kids in impoverished areas, I wanted to use my degree to make a difference in people’s lives.  I had to develop a proposal to present for my quals.  I gave it to my advisor and after having it for 3 months, he didn’t get back to me until the night before the committee meeting.  I ended up failing my quals.  I wanted to stay in the program but I was not getting any useful advice or guidance. I ended up on academic probation and when I asked for guidance, I was told by on advisor that “I’ve never taught one of you before”.   I forced him to clarify and he admitted he had never advised a Black student before.  I did not need special Black advice, I just needed to know what had to happen to get off academic probation.  I decided to look for a mentor and discovered in my inquiries that if I made it through the program, I would be the first Black woman to ever receive a PhD from the department.

I switched advisors and ended up working with a terrific advisor, Greg Wakefield.  We had a standing 10 am meeting and he helped me get through my quals again.  He offered to become my dissertation advisor and a choice from several projects.  I began working with him on 3D Audio, which enables you to manipulate sound to make it seem like it is coming from somewhere around you.  His advice changed my experience. I took one logic circuits class and got the only A in the class.  Everyone assumed it was the only other woman in the class, a white woman.  Then they found it was me. 

I had considered taking a job and there were a lot of options when I graduated. I applied to both industry and academia.  I had met Juan Gilbert at a conference and he encouraged me to come down to Clemson University and apply to be faculty there.  He was the one who taught me that being in academia would offer me the flexibility to investigate all the things that I found interesting, I would be able to travel and I’d be in a supportive environment.  I moved to Clemson and found that while the Dean and University were liberal and accepting, the admins and staff from the town were much less accepting of a Black professor.  In fact, the KKK was actively recruiting in the town and left recruitment materials in my driveway.

Juan was recruited to University of Florida and I joined him there with several of our colleagues.  Amazingly there was a faculty grievance filed because all of the new faculty members arriving were Black.  We went through some rough times but over time we won people over and we’ve been able to make great strides.

What projects are you working on today?

I am excited about all my projects.  I’m currently working on 3D Audio Rescue which enables you to put on headphones and create 3D audio sound tokens that are used in virtual and augmented environments when you can’t use visual cues.  One example would be using the temperature from a heat gun and turning the information into 3d audio cues to help first responders locate a human in a smoky fire.  The system has been built and is being tested by the Jamesville Fire Department.  I also teach a class on 3D Audio where students create 3D audio applications.

I’m also working on the Generation NEXT program which provided need-based support for PhD students at University of Florida.  We are working to provide community and support to the students much like the Meyerhoff program.  COVID-19 ruined a lot of our plans with students.  We’ve worked with them to create a summer plan for what they are doing and we’re working on what’s happening in the fall.

Another 3D Audio project is using scans of a person’s head to understand how sound waves are impacted and transfer.  It will be a new way of taking an acoustic field and create it for anyone’s ears, helping make sound super realistic.

How did you become involved with the Tapia Conference?

I went to Tapia in Junior year of college.  UMBC does not let you miss out on any developmental opportunities.  I had only been on a plane once before I went to Tapia.  It was wonderful going to a place where I could see diverse people working on computer science stuff.  It was fantastic reacquainting with Jeff Forbes and attending the grad school fair.

What impact did attending the Tapia Conference have on your career?

Tapia has definitely served as different things at different stages of my career.  As an undergraduate it served as a proof of concept for me, Black people can do computer science. I was in a room full of people who were offering themselves as a resource.  In graduate school I attended sessions about the issues I was facing at school.  I needed a community and by attending Tapia I was able to build one.  When I attended Tapia in Orlando in 2007 I received mentoring that helped me create my first published paper.  And now in my academic career I am taking my own students to the conference and I’m continuing to meet collaborators.

One of the things I’m proudest of is a podcast that I helped create called Modern Figures Podcast (modernfigurespodcast.com).  We highlight women from the Black Women in Computing community and tell their stories.  I encourage everyone to check out the episodes we’ve done and turn in for our new season starting in September 2020.  This podcast is a part of my efforts to continue to push for inclusion at all computer science related organizations.  The thing you always have to remember is that everything you say to someone can be their “aha moment”.