What is your educational background?
I hold a Bachelor’s of Science in Cyber Security Engineering from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Fun fact, I am the first Black woman to have earned my degree from my undergraduate institution.
What is your current occupation?
I am a Ph.D. Student in Computer Science at the University of California, Davis. Broadly defined, my research interests include network security, cyber-physical system security, applications of machine learning in cyber security, securing the Internet of Things (IoT), and the design of cyber-resilient systems.
What or who got you into STEM?
My dad was a high school math teacher back in Kenya, so I feel like I inherited my love for math from him. Growing up, he helped me build a solid foundation in math, and he even taught me algebra before I started the sixth grade to make sure I was prepared. That’s something I’ll always be thankful for because I realize that a lot of kids didn’t have that. I will always remember this one picture where I’m sitting on my dad’s lap with a calculator in my hand (I think I was like two years old), so I like to say that I knew how to use a calculator before I even knew what math was. On the other hand, my love for computers began when I was probably eight years old. Before moving to the U.S. I had never used a computer, but I knew they existed. I don’t remember the details of my first experience with a computer, but I do remember how excited I was to learn how to type at my elementary school. Since then I’ve been mesmerized by computers and my favorite school assignments were the ones that required using a computer. Computers came easy to me, so every time my parents had a computer issue, I was always ready to figure it out.
What is the biggest challenge/barrier you have faced as an African in STEM?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced as an African American woman in STEM has been feeling completely unqualified and out of place. At the intersection of race and gender, women of color are grossly underrepresented and marginalized in STEM. When I started my coursework for my undergraduate degree, I was not prepared for the underrepresentation of students of color in my classes. In my technical classes, I’m usually the only Black woman or even the only Black person in the room, and my professors have mostly been white men. On top of that, I have typically been the only Black student in my internships, so feeling out of place is inevitable both in and out of the classroom. As a result, I have focused on being an exemplary student, and I have been involved in various student organizations that enable me to empower underrepresented students to be the best they can be. Before I started college, I never thought I could become an Engineer or Computer Scientist even when one of my high school teachers suggested engineering to me, and now here I am with an engineering degree and pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science! That’s crazy to think about.
How do you think your background/upbringing has been beneficial in your journey/career?
My background/upbringing has been beneficial in many different ways. I would say first is learning the importance of working hard. As a kid, getting to experience my parents put their lives on hold to move my family to the U.S. so my siblings and I could have better opportunities is one of the greatest things my parents could have done for us; I can’t waste the sacrifices they’ve made. Moving to a whole new country with four young kids is not easy, so when I ponder how hard my parents have worked to get me here, I tell myself I have no excuse to not work hard. It keeps me motivated. Second, I would say that growing up at the intersection of Kenyan and American culture has helped me to stay open to learning more about other cultures. For example, at my current institution my cohort is largely composed of Chinese and Indian students, so I enjoy learning more about all the different traditions and finding similarities between my colleagues’ cultures and my blended culture. It’s pretty cool because we have more in common that one would expect.
How do you think we can start to change the narrative surrounding African contributions
to global STEM research & careers?
First, I think what ViSTEM Africa is doing is key. Exposure is everything, so it’s important to highlight, amplify, and educate the world about all the amazing African contributions in STEM. I feel like there is so much amazing research being done in Africa and by Africans all over the world that I don’t know about, and that’s an issue. A huge part of the problem, as I’ve recently discovered, is many African researchers are denied visas to travel to conferences where they can present and talk about their work, which serves to further marginalize and isolate scholars in this demographic. Even African scholars with F-1 Student Visas in the U.S. have a difficult time going outside of the country to present their research and participate in other academic activities internationally. My friends have informed me that if they do so, recently implemented visa restrictions make it difficult to get back into the U.S. We have to fix this, and that starts with highlighting and talking about these problems. Second, collaborations in research are important. I think international collaborations, both within and outside of Africa, while difficult, are a promising strategy for innovative work in STEM and could help amplify the narrative surrounding African contributions. So let’s collaborate!
What advice would you like to give to young, aspiring Africans in STEM?
Dream big, believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid to take your place in STEM. Even if you’re afraid, do it afraid! As importantly, never strive for mediocrity. Do the best with what you have wherever you are, and don’t forget to lift as you climb.