A Man of Many Parts: Computer Science Professor Juan Gilbert Excels as a Mentor

Dr. Juan Gilbert is also a researcher, scholar, teacher and entrepreneur in the field of Human-Centered Computing.Dr. Juan Gilbert is also a researcher, scholar, teacher and entrepreneur in the field of Human-Centered Computing.

Visitors entering the Human-Centered Computing lab at Clemson University are greeted by a wall covered with sports pennants from an array of colleges. If the visitors are lucky, they also are greeted by Dr. Juan Gilbert, chairman of the lab, with a ready smile and an eagerness to brag about his current and former students whose undergraduate colleges are represented by the pennants.

Gilbert’s pride in his students is only exceeded by his students’ pride in him — and with good reason. On Dec. 12, Gilbert — a 42-year-old computer professor with modest origins — was among nine individuals and representatives of eight organizations at a White House ceremony to receive the 2011 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, or STEM.

Nothing speaks more to Gilbert’s worthiness of this honor than the school pennants in his lab and what they reveal about the personal investment he makes in every one of his students.

Gilbert also is a researcher, scholar, teacher and entrepreneur in the field of Human-Centered Computing, or HCC. HCC, a fairly young discipline, applies computer-based solutions to real-world problems. Through HCC, social problems such as voting accessibility, African-American schoolchildren’s aversion to science and math, potential bias in college admissions and the dangers of texting while driving are identified, while software to correct these problems is designed, evaluated and ultimately sold in the marketplace.

Aside from his mentoring activities, Gilbert’s outlook “is predominantly entrepreneurial,” according to Professor Bryant W. York of the University of Notre Dame, “if you think of entrepreneurs as people who bring innovation to organizations and initiate new enterprises.”

Gilbert “is willing to take risks, and he takes actions to create solutions,” York said, adding: “And he brings these characteristics to his teaching and mentoring activities.”

“It’s nice to have all those characteristics rolled up into one mentor,” York said. “Many students must have multiple mentors in order to get comparable coverage.”

In a venture spearheaded by Cox, Matthews & Associates, the publisher of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, Gilbert has been the developer of Applications Quest, a data mining software tool for academic admissions and human resources departments. With affirmative action currently under legal scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court, the software helps institutions holistically reach admissions and hiring decisions because it can recommend diverse applicants in line with “academic standards and hiring objectives without giving preference to any race, ethnicity or any other specific attribute,” according to the Applications Quest website. Several years prior to working with Cox, Matthews & Associates, Gilbert was named by the company’s Black Issues in Higher Education magazine as an Emerging Scholar. 

Recruiting Computer Science Students from Underrepresented Groups

Gilbert has succeeded in recruiting about 7 percent of all African-American doctoral students in computer science to Clemson’s HCC lab, “by far the largest population of these students in the nation,” he said.

Gilbert’s passion for mentoring students who are underrepresented in “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering and math) also has another source.

“Throughout history,” Gilbert explained, “countries with the best technology have led, and this is not always a good thing. I think it’s very important that we have a strong STEM workforce, and, in order to do that, you need mentoring.” Women and minorities are often attracted to the helping professions because this is where they can help people, he explains. But individuals in these groups often don’t see in the STEM professions a connection with helping others. “I want to show how you can use these fields, in my case the computing field, in ways that can help others.”

“I believe what drives Juan is a strong sense of fairness,” said York, who began mentoring Gilbert during the latter’s final year in his doctoral program. “He relies on his internal equity meter to tell him when something is wrong, and, when it goes off, he takes action.”

Gilbert is a natural mentor. “He is genuinely interested in the success of his students,” said York. He added that people can feel it, particularly Gilbert’s students.

One of those students is Hanan Alnizami. She said that she would not have pursued a doctorate — “I didn’t see grad school as an option” — if it had not been for Gilbert’s recruiting her into his program. Another of his doctoral students, Wanda Moses, recounts a similar experience. After Moses contacted Gilbert about online classes, she said, he persuaded her to join the doctoral program by addressing her concerns about the cost of the program and living expenses.

Paying It Forward

“Paying it forward” is what Juan Gilbert is all about.

Gilbert’s path to the White House began in Hamilton, Ohio, where his father owned an automotive repair shop and his mother was a teacher’s aide in a public school. A member of his high school’s highly ranked basketball team, Gilbert credits his coach with pushing the players to be scholars as well as athletes. Gilbert listened and graduated 21st in a class of 600.

First in his family to go to college, Gilbert’s plans were to graduate and get a job. But ad hoc mentors would have none of that.

While majoring in chemistry, Gilbert was encouraged to pursue advanced studies in that field. Instead, he changed his major to systems analysis “to avoid going to grad school” and to be job-ready after college. But work at the NCR Corporation after graduation didn’t satisfy him, and Gilbert started night classes in computer science at the University of Cincinnati. While there, one of his professors encouraged him to continue on for a Ph.D.

“I’d never thought of it as an option,” recalls Gilbert. But when his professor told Gilbert that he’d hire him if he got a doctorate, he decided to take the plunge.

Then, while a Ph.D. candidate, his adviser was denied tenure, and Gilbert returned to the corporate world—but not for long.

“At a conference, I met Dr. Andrea Lawrence,” Gilbert said, “the first African-American I had met with a Ph.D. in computer science.” She introduced him to others in the African-American computer science community. “I ended up going back to the University of Cincinnati,” he added. His adviser accepted him back and provided him funding.

Lawrence’s encouragement of Gilbert and her introducing him to a community of like-minded African-Americans was crucial to his success.

“I decided, if I became a professor, I’d never allow African-American students to feel isolated because I knew what that felt like,” Gilbert said.

York commented: “There is definitely an element of luck in finding a good mentor. But there must also be an element of determination in the mentee.”

Editor’s Note: Applications Quest, LLC, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Cox, Matthews & Associates, the parent company of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.