When Hang Chen first visited Johnson C. Smith University in 2004 as a prospective faculty member, her guide for the day was Magdy Attia, chair of the Computer Science and Engineering Department.
Dr. Attia would soon become her mentor, and in 2007, after he was appointed dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, she would follow in his footsteps as department chair. Together, they’d share the ambitious dream of a new state-of-the-art science building on campus, growing the university’s innovative STEM program, and attracting more minority students to the field.
With a $25 million grant from The Duke Endowment, Johnson C. Smith broke ground in 2012 on the steel and glass building, which now stands as a gleaming centerpiece for the campus.
But for students and faculty alike, the dedication in 2015 was clouded by Dr. Attia’s unexpected death just days earlier. In the difficult months that followed, Dr. Chen would again succeed her mentor – this time as interim dean.
“I lost a colleague and friend,” she says. “In Chinese, we call that, ‘a challenge time,’ which means it’s time to find opportunities in the challenges that you face. I think I had Dr. Attia’s blessing in doing that.”
In January 2017, Dr. Chen was appointed dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and named the James B. Duke Distinguished Associate Professor of computer science. She talks about her work – and her “challenge times” – in the following interview.
Tell us about your education.
STEM at Johnson C. Smith
In 2014, “HBCU Digest” ranked Johnson C. Smith University’s STEM program as “best” among Historically Black College and Universities. Another publication, “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education,” placed the university in the top 1 percent among all higher education institutions in the United States in graduating African Americans in computer science and information systems.
Johnson C. Smith says that 58 percent of its graduates in the STEM disciplines are women, which is more than double the national rate.
With the new science building, campus leaders say they are transforming traditional STEM offerings to those that are “market-driven” to provide viable careers for its graduates. The school says programs in cyber security, renewable energy and sustainability, bioinformatics, data analytics, and robotics will help create “entrepreneurial leaders across the entire spectrum of the technological workforce.”
I finished my bachelor’s degree in computer science in China. I was born in Chengdu, home to the famous Chengdu Panda Base. I was 22 when I came to the United States in 2000 to earn my Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati.
I received a full scholarship to go there – but when I first got the offer, I said, ‘Let me look at the map. Where is Cincinnati?’
I had a huge learning curve going to a totally new culture, but I like to test my confidence. I’m pretty fearless.
What brought you to JCSU?
After I got my Ph.D., I started to explore opportunities. I came to Johnson C. Smith in March from Ohio, where it was cold and snowing. Visiting the campus felt like visiting a family.
What is your research focus?
Wireless and mobile communication, wireless networks and system performance evaluation.
I’m also working on several diversity-related initiatives in STEM. We have a gap here, and not just for students. I’ve had female faculty members in this field ask how they can move from a professor to a department chair or a dean. It’s a real challenge to get more women in the field if they don’t see others succeeding.
What was your experience as a computer science student?
Female students were definitely in the minority – and for my graduate studies, I never had one female professor.
Did that bother you?
I could have put tags on myself: I’m female, I’m from China, I speak with an accent. But I didn’t. When something was difficult for me, I didn’t think it was difficult because I’m a woman or a foreigner. I just thought I needed to work hard like everyone else.
I really didn’t realize that there were so few women in the field until I started attending conferences in the United States. I’m often the only female at the table.
Why do you think STEM is male-dominated? What turns women away?
I think of it as a leaky pipeline. When students see so few women and minorities at the top, they question continuing in the field if they can’t climb the ladder up.
The negative stereotypes of computer science and engineering are off-putting to female students who tend to desire jobs that are people-oriented and socially relevant. I also notice, and I don’t have data to back this up, but a lot of our female students want to focus on helping people. They choose biology instead of computer science because they want to go into a health profession. Or they choose to major in social work because they want to be in the service sector.
What message do you want to share?
In STEM, you are the change agents. You bring the innovation that can impact social issues and needs.
We have some historic barriers. We have some leaks in the pipeline that we need to address, but women and minorities can be very rewarded in this field.
When they ask me, ‘Dr. Chen, what is it like to work in IT? I hear it’s mostly men.’ I tell them, ‘You could be a star.’
Do you consider yourself a role model?
I love to share my story. I sometimes hear back from students after graduation and they say, I remember how you came to the United States and didn’t even know where Ohio was. If you can do it, we can.
Susan L. McConnell
Director, Higher Education