Researching Inclusion

Researching Inclusion

Even as a child, Dr. Valerie Taylor was drawn to math and science. “Math is an objective subject. It doesn’t change from year to year like English. One year an English teacher would say my writing was too flowery, another year it was not expressive enough. But each year 2 plus 2 was 4,” says Taylor, a nationally known computer science researcher and professor.
Taylor, associate professor in Northwestern University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, has won acclaim for her research. A major effort is Project Prophesy, a partnership between Northwestern and Argonne National Laboratory. Her work focuses on analyzing and improving the performance of applications that run on a collection of computers in different geographic locations.
Taylor is also an active member of the Institute for African American E-Culture and is assiduously researching digital divide issues. She is co-principal investigator for an institute project with the National Science Foundation. The project, “New Approaches to Human Capital Development Through Information Technology Research,” is looking at some nontraditional ways to teach computer science concepts, such as incorporating hip-hop.
Taylor is accustomed to being among a handful of African Americans at computer science conferences and often being the only woman of color.
“It’s been lonely,” says Taylor, a native of Chicago. “There’s the major issue of isolation, and of often being considered a double minority. You’re asked to serve on so many committees and give opinions for being a woman and again for being a minority.” Taylor is the only Black female professor in her department. When she first started at Northwestern, she was often mistaken as a secretary. When Taylor attends computer science conferences, she immediately does a “scan” in the meeting hall, waving frantically if she spots another African American woman, who always returns the frantic wave.
Taylor says she doesn’t think of herself as a superstar role model, but she does feel it is necessary to give back to her community — both minorities and women — and to show those coming behind her that it can be done.
“It’s one thing to dream about a position, but it’s good to actually see someone doing it,” she says. She adds that it is important to share her excitement for her field with others.
“It’s important to tell others that research is not something that one does in isolation. You collaborate with others and share the results you see with other people at conferences. The sharing and collaborations also take place via e-mail and video-conferencing technologies,” Taylor says. She is co-chairwoman of the Coalition to Diversify Computing, a joint organization of the Association of Computing Machinery, the Computing Research Association and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering Computer Society.
“So much information is conveyed via the Web,” Taylor says of bridging the digital divide. “If you have a community that doesn’t have access to computers, they don’t have access to critical information. But it’s not all about technology. Training is just as important as access.”
— By Eleanor Lee Yates



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