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Juan E. Gilbert is changing the face of STEM

Juan Gilbert is Professor and Chair of the Human-Centered Computing Division in the School of Computing at Clemson University, where he directs the Human-Centered Computing Lab. In 2011, he was named a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Today, of the 56 black computer science professors nationwide, six tenure-track or tenured professors are at Clemson. Its doctoral students account for 10 percent of African-American computer science Ph.D. candidates. This is no accident.

AAAS MemberCentral: Your success has made you a poster child for the integration of people, culture, and technology in STEM. Please elaborate on two of your favorite principles that derive from this integration—"usability matters" and "know what you know."
Juan E. Gilbert, Professor and Chair of the Human-Centered Computing Division in the School of Computing at Clemson University: In my research, we purposely look at the design, implementation and evaluation of systems or interfaces with a human-centered perspective. If you could build a technology that solved world peace, but no one could use it, it would be useless; therefore, we like to say "usability matters." To design innovative technologies that solve real-world problems, you must understand the human aspects of the problems. Technology alone doesn't do it. You need to understand the people, their culture, policy, etc.  Once you have developed a solution, you have to "know what you know"—you must speak from a position of confidence and that requires that you know the facts.  Listen to talk shows on TV and you will hear phrases like, "I think" and "I believe."  I am training my team to say things like "I know" and "The facts are..." This is the "know what you know" philosophy that we teach in the lab.

AAASMC: Please explain how your PhD program in Human-Centered Computing attracts women and minorities.  Aside from your prolific entrepreneurial and publication record, what do you do with student talent that most other STEM doctoral programs not do effectively?
Gilbert: Research has shown us for many years that women and minorities are attracted to helping professions.  Helping professions are those disciplines that have a clear way of giving back, e.g., education and health. If you look at the disciplines where women and minorities have the most representation, they share the theme or perception of helping others. But in the STEM disciplines, women and minorities are severely underrepresented. Why is that the case when these disciplines offer higher salaries and more job opportunities? Most people view STEM disciplines as areas that focus on artifacts and phenomena, not people. In many ways, this view is the opposite of the helping professions. However, Human-Centered Computing (HCC) offers a clear connection between helping professions and STEM. We work on issues that address societal issues and connect with their desire to help others. We are very effective in communicating the applied nature of HCC.

AAASMC: Your approach to real-world problems was developed through Applications Quest, a modeling tool. Tell me more about this tool and how it clarifies the problem of competitive selection that poses such a challenge to universities and employers.
Gilbert: Applications Quest™ is a data mining and analysis tool that I created to address affirmative action issues, specifically the use of race/ethnicity, gender, national origin, etc., in admissions and hiring decisions. Applications Quest™ clarifies this still-raging debate. It offers a solution that adheres to all judicial decisions on the use of race/ethnicity, gender, national origin, etc., in admissions and hiring decisions. I can prove that Applications Quest™ increases holistic diversity without giving preference to race/ethnicity while maintaining academic achievement levels. And it does so in a fraction of the time it would take a committee to reach admissions or hiring decisions. Notice that I said, "I can prove," not "I believe" or "I think." This is an excellent example of creating a solution to a societal issue using technology that integrates people and policy. Details of how Applications Quest™ works can be found at I will say that the fundamental premise behind Applications Quest™ is not difficult to understand. Those for and against racial preferences have to agree that Applications Quest™ is fair, equitable, and a just way to address the issue.

AAASMC: Another compelling area of your program is voting studies. What is Prime III, which you describe as "a secure, multimodal electronic voting system"? What was your motivation for developing this line of research, and what promise does it hold not only for researchers, but for all citizens?
Gilbert: Prime III is a prototype electronic voting system created in my lab that allows people to vote by touch and/or voice. People who cannot hear, read, see, and those without arms can all privately and independently vote on the same machine like everyone else. Our technology eliminates the need for a special accessibility machine for the blind or others with disabilities. It has a universal design that allows everyone to vote independent of their ability or disability. This has significant societal impacts because it makes voting more accessible for everyone. Several organizations have used Prime III for their national or local elections, including the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE, the world's largest student run organization); the National Council for Independent Living (NCIL); and Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE). This year the State of Oregon used Prime III in their May primary, which was the first time it as used for an official government election. We have had people with and without cognitive or physical disabilities use Prime III privately and independently. Our approach to the issue of providing a secure, accessible voting solution is working. It changes how researchers will design accessible solutions to other real-world problems.

AAASMC: Finally, science is a multicultural pursuit and your career exemplifies the influence of mentors and colleagues of various ethnicities.  Comment on what education, in the context of diversity, has meant to you?
Gilbert: I almost dropped out of my PhD program because I was so isolated. I had never met an African-American with a PhD in computer science and I was very discouraged. Then came Dr. Andrea Lawrence, who was the Computer Science Department Chair at Spelman College. She introduced me to other African-American computer scientists with PhDs and it changed my motivation, my spirit, and my will to succeed. After that experience, I vowed that I would not allow any African-American (or anyone else for that matter) to be isolated in a PhD program. I created my own lab and 12 years later we are the largest group of African-Americans in computing in our nation's history. I had mentors who were of Caucasian and Asian descent. They certainly provided me with important skills and advice throughout my career and they continue to do so. However, not seeing anyone who looks like me or comes from my background in an area that I truly love was very discouraging.

Often in my classes the professor would present a problem. My solution was very different from that of my peers. This happened so often that I realized that it had to be a cultural difference. I also noticed that those who I worked with learned just as much from me as I did from them. In other words, you don't learn much from being around people that are like you and agree with you. Difference creates understanding through a diversity of views of the world and its problems. I eventually learned that as a minority in the classroom and in research, I have an advantage because my ideas are often not the "mainstream" point of view. As such, I became very competitive in problem-solving. For those who don't believe diversity matters, I say you are wrong. Just look at the innovative things we have been able to do. I attribute those ideas to our diversity, our different perspectives, our under representation in the idea pool, and our desire to make a difference.