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From the Cultural Revolution to Computer Science

When Dr. Wei Chen received the 2010 IBM Faculty Award, the Tennessee State University (TSU) computer science professor was puzzled over all the fuss about the honor.

“I’m very behind the scenes,” Chen says.

Still, it is the work in which Chen, her students and colleagues are engaged that helps historically Black TSU advance its efforts to emerge as an academic standout in computer science and engineering education and innovation. Her IBM award, for example, was for her work at TSU on “cloud computing,” a new way of gathering large amounts of data without first downloading and installing large files.

“She has a lot to offer the students and the school,” says Dionne Bennett, the IMB client representative who works with Tennessee State.

Adds Dr. Amir Gamshad, head of the computer science department at Tennessee State and the veteran academician who recruited Chen: “She’s priceless. An excellent researcher and an excellent teacher.”

Gamshad, who has taught at TSU for some 30 years, says Chen is one of the best computer scientists he has encountered.

Chen’s arrival at Tennessee State eight years ago was the byproduct of much luck and much work.

Born in Shanghai, Chen grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution. During that time, the Chinese government was even less tolerant of free speech and ambitious academic pursuits at the nation’s colleges. By age 16, Chen worked in a lathe factory, a job she would have for some five years. In the factory, she became intrigued with the workings of machinery.

By her 21st birthday, China resumed nationwide college exams for the first time in nearly a decade. Chen placed well and became a first-generation college student.

Her talents were in math, although she embarked upon her college career hoping to become a writer. Her math skills won, however. After completing her undergraduate and master’s level work, she was selected to be among a small group of students awarded full doctoral degree fellowships by Japanese education authorities. She earned a Ph.D. in computer science at Osaka University where she remained for several years to begin teaching and research. It didn’t hurt that her mother and sister, a teacher at nearby Vanderbilt University, lived in Nashville when TSU’s Gamshad came calling.

“I was lucky,” says Chen, reflecting on her road to scholarship from factory work among the Chinese masses.

Today, in addition to working on several advanced computer science projects, Chen teaches algorithms, artificial intelligence and formal language and helps other first-generation collegians at TSU.

“I do like students and research,” says Chen, who hopes her work benefits her school and the larger community of minority-serving institutions.

Despite working in some of the most advanced areas of computer science and earning praise from her peers for staying on the cutting edge in her field, Chen prides herself on her personal penchant for simplicity. She has no interest in having an iPhone, with all of its razzle dazzle applications. “I only use the basic functions in everything,” she says. 

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