Kyla McMullen, first African American woman to graduate from Michigan with a CSE PhD

Kyla McMullen Enlarge
Kyla McMullen

Kyla McMullen, CSE MSE 2007, PhD 2012, has become the first African American woman at the University of Michigan to graduate with a PhD in Computer Science and Engineering. She is now an Assistant Professor at Clemson University’s School of Computing, where her primary research interests lie in rendering spatial audio virtually to enhance virtual environments and to sonify information sources.

McMullen’s doctoral work in the Interactive Systems group at the University of Michigan involved assessing the individualization of rendering virtual sounds over headphones. Once that was resolved, she studied how listeners could be trained locate and remember these virtual sounds as they “walked” through the virtual environment. Her dissertation was entitled,“Interface Design Implications for Recalling the Spatial Configuration of Virtual Auditory Environments.”

Prof. McMullen attributes her desire to learn the computer sciences to her high school teacher, Mr. Randy Ware, who worked to break his students’ stereotypical view of what a computer scientist looked like. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (where she was a Meyerhoff Scholar) before coming to the University of Michigan for graduate school.

In 2007, while working on her Master’s, McMullen began constructing educational software that taught children how to identify relationships between objects. She also worked on a research project through the Naval Submarine Medical Research Lab involving the construction of virtual environments that are navigable primarily using virtually spatialized sound cues; that work has potential applications for assistive technologies, training simulations, workers in sight-restricted environments.

According to a 2012 survey (PDF) conducted by the Computing Research Association, 1.2% of computer science PhDs awarded in the year 2010-11 were to African Americans, which is 16 people. Prof. McMullen is not alone in her accomplishments; one of her best friends, Nwokedi Idika, is the first African American to receive a PhD in Computer Science from Purdue University.

While at Michigan, McMullen held the offices of both President and the Vice President of the Society of Minority Engineers and Scientists, and the office of Vice President of the Movement of Underrepresented Sisters in Engineering and Science (MUSES).

Alumni News; Student News