Be Intentional: A Roundtable With Purdue ME's Black Faculty

Monique McClain, James Gibert, and Tahira Reid Smith come from different backgrounds and study different fields. But at Purdue, they've discovered an environment where they can collaborate and thrive.
Monique McClain (left) is from southern California, and studies additive manufacturing of energetic materials. James Gibert (center) grew up in South Carolina, and conducts research in dynamics and smart materials. Tahira Reid Smith (right) is from the Bronx, and focuses on design and human-machine interaction. Sitting down together for the first time, they discussed how their experiences compare, both in and out of the classroom. They also discuss a recent paper in Science, co-authored by Gibert and Reid, which encourages researchers to be intentional about including diverse groups of people when they develop new technologies.

Let’s talk about growing up. When you were a kid, was there something that set you on the path towards science and engineering?

JG: My grandfather was a carpenter, and so I always built things as a kid. But I like reading history too, and I actually received a history scholarship in college, so I was kind of torn. I concluded that I could make a more decent living in a technical field!

MM: I was lucky that I got to see some people with higher degrees in my family – my dad's a physician, and my mom has a bachelor's degree in French literature. But believe it or not, one of the most critical things for me growing up was Star Trek! I always thought the chief engineer was the coolest job on the ship. They were always fixing the engine, so I thought they were the most important person. That really inspired me to go into aerospace engineering. But I hated math as a kid, so my mom always had to push me to work at it.

TRS: I was actually the opposite; math and science were my favorite subjects in school. I think we all had teachers who also encouraged us. I remember my 8th grade math teacher, Miss Closi: the bell rang on a Friday and she didn't let us go until we got it right. That level of rigor was there, even at an early age. But like James, I also had family influences: my grandfather was sort of a “maker,” and I used to do store runs with him to the hardware store.

You’ve all talked about how important it is for Black students to get interested in STEM at an early age. Can you talk about how you’ve seen that play out in your own journeys?

TRS: I could observe that certain kids – say, if you were in honors – got treated differently, almost like they were in a special group. I think educators today are more aware that there are bright students in every section, regardless if they’re in honors, or if they scored well on a standardized test.

JG: It’s true. I remember 1st grade, being pulled out of class and put in what they called the “gifted and talented” class, which was predominantly white. But then outside, my community was predominantly Black. And so I would get on the bus, get to class, and then separate from all the people that I grew up with. And so I had this dual identity in school, because during recess I would hang out with both sets of friends. It's kind of a weird place to be, to be honest with you. It wasn't easy to go between communities.

MM: It’s true for girls too, especially like the elementary school range. If you're a girl and you kind of have yourself together, you have a plan and everything, you were definitely tagged as being the “bossy” one. If kids get discouraged from that early, they won’t be represented in those fields later in life. And I can tell you, as a faculty member now, you have to be assertive to be successful.

What about when you got to college? What were the challenges you faced then, and how did you cope with them?

MM: In my undergrad, I was often the only Black woman in the room – sometimes the only Black person in the room. Bias was always something I had to deal with, especially wanting to work in propulsion. I wanted to join the Rocket Club as a freshman, but I was the only woman, so I always had to think in the back of my mind: “Am I safe here? Will they accept me?” I couldn’t just join like everyone else. Thankfully, I made some great friends, male and female. It sounds cliché, but we need allies; I needed people who would vouch for me and would support me.

JG: At the time, I think Clemson had 6% African-American enrollment. But I had already been through this “dual role” in high school, so transitioning to college wasn’t that big a deal. For me it was more about the work ethic. My mom was a teacher, and she always told me I had to be “twice as good.” That’s tough to live up to. But once I decided what I wanted to do, I was laser focused.

TRS: I definitely had to get used to being “the only one” in the class, either the only female or person of color or both. But more than that, I was used to being a big fish in a small pond, and then when I started college, I became a little fish in a big pond. There were a lot of other people not only as good as me, but better. It was really humbling: whoa, I’ve got to actually put some work into this! But then I got on the Today Show, and I became this favorite on campus. Now all of a sudden everyone likes me!

After finding a 3rd-grade drawing she made of an automatic double-dutch jump rope machine, Tahira actually built the machine for her senior design project, which gained her nationwide notoriety.


Now that you’re all professors, what is your favorite part about being a faculty member?

MM: I just became an assistant professor last summer, and it's been an interesting process. I really like having that autonomy of what I'm doing: whether it's in the classroom or in the lab, or choosing who I think will fit our team, or mentoring one-on-one in office hours. Those are things that have been going really well so far.

JG: I enjoy all aspects of it. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy interacting with my graduate students. I interact with some brilliant graduate students at Purdue and it's one of the main draws here. They have brilliant ideas. I can give them an idea, and they can run with it. They give me ideas and we go with them. I like the fact that I have some autonomy in my research that I can go do things that just intellectually stimulate me.

MM: I would echo James; I think one of the reasons I really wanted to become a professor is because you get to do a bit of everything. I like the impact that I have directly in a research group. But I also like talking to undergrads in my group or in class, and getting to know them. Where are they trying to go, and how can I help them get there? To me that's really important, because I don’t want any student to fall through the cracks, and feel like no one is looking out for them. Someone's here listening, someone's here to give you guidance.

TRS: I really enjoyed teaching my graduate class last year, because I was able to pull from things that I did with NASA. There was just such a nice group of students, and some of them are continuing to take what they learned and use it in their research. Every semester is different, with these ebbs and flows. This past semester I taught Senior Design, and my team won 1st place, which I’m really proud of! In fact, every time I have taught Senior Design, one of my teams has been in the top 3. In fall 2019, my section was dedicated to "Beauty Technology Innovation and Human-Centered Design," and I was very pleased that the 1st place team was predominantly women, who built a machine to clean makeup brushes. I was told by a former student that I create environments for them that enables free thought. I am pretty proud of this track record.

Let’s talk about research. What are the most exciting things going on in your research groups?

JG: So my research interest is basically at the intersection of dynamics and manufacturing and sensing. And so a lot of our recent work has been with the Army, developing embedded sensors for armor applications out of both metal and ceramics, and these are produced by 3D printing processes. I also work with Clemson developing triboelectric generators for packaging. So imagine a cardboard box being delivered in a truck. Just using the vibrations, we can generate enough electricity to power sensors in the box, or even LEDs, to make it truly smart packaging.


MM: When I came here to Purdue as a grad student, I wanted to do anything related to rockets, propellants, or engines. Somehow I got started with energetic materials, characterizing their properties. And then I got into 3D printing them, and now that’s what I’m doing. We're really interested in multi-material 3D printing of energetics to try to tune their specific properties.


TRS: My work is in human-machine interaction, and specifically quantifying and integrating human-centered considerations in engineering and the design process. I’m working with Neera Jain on quantifying trust. We have these intelligent machines, like self-driving cars, and most of the focus on their development has been technological. What about the human side of it? What is it going to take to get humans to trust a self-driving car, and how can we design the technology to acknowledge that trust gap and try to alleviate it?

You bring up human-machine interaction; that’s the subject of the paper that you and James just published in Science magazine. Talk about how that paper came about.

TRS: So an editor from Science invited me to write a paper on human-machine interactions. And in my work, I've noticed this issue of a lack of diverse subjects. I've been doing human subject studies since 2006, and I remember how long it took me to do my data collection because I was trying to diversify. When I was at University of Michigan, I didn’t just want U of M students in my datasets. I didn’t want to just go on Mechanical Turk and get random subjects. I had to do so much to be intentional. And it was hard and made things longer. So I talked to a few people about it, and James had some great input.

JG: That’s very flattering and nice. I think my background helps; I actually wanted to be a history major in college. So I do have a unique perspective on these problems in society. One of my goals has been to start speaking out about this, because it’s driven by public policy. And we’ve seen with the pandemic how public policy can be both good and bad. So this Science paper was truly collaborative. We worked on this for months; it’s probably one of the longest papers that we've worked on, because it had to be compressed into two pages!

The paper brings up some negative examples of how a non-diverse development process can lead to problems with new technologies: facial recognition software providing false positives, or police robots that are deployed without any input from the community. So what can we do to counteract this? What are some positive steps we can take to ensure that inclusion is baked in to science and technology development?

JG: I think sometimes people that develop certain technologies are so concerned about “can we do it?” They should be concerned with “who does this affect?” And that should be the question that we need to address first. It can’t just be an afterthought. Be intentional about this.

TRS: One of the papers I cite discusses where airports should be located in a city, in terms of noise and access, and they prioritize high-income communities in their models. That’s a pretty blatant example of who’s benefitting from this study, and who's excluded. This Science article is just intended to get people to pause and think. You can use your own vocabulary – “inclusive design” is one of the phrases people use – but just realizing that this blind spot exists is the first step. We need to be intentional about our best and brightest focusing on “inclusive design,” rather than it being an afterthought. Ask a simple question: “who is in our data now, and who is being left out?” Just asking that simple question will make a big difference.

Talk to me about how Purdue has had an impact on your life and your career.

JG: I've been in a couple of different institutions, and the colleagues at Purdue are really what make this place stand out. They're brilliant. They're supportive. I can't say enough about the people that I work with. There are definitely things that I could not have done, that I'm able to do at Purdue, just because of that culture of shared resources and being collaborative. And then there's just the Purdue name. When I put an idea out with the Purdue name behind it, it carries a lot of weight.

TRS: There's definitely a culture of collaboration here. And I didn’t realize how rare that is, until I talked to colleagues at other institutions. I wouldn't have lasted a year at some of these places with how toxic the environments are! But here at Purdue we have a culture of collaboration and a culture of mentoring. They basically invited me to come play in their playground, and choose what I wanted to do. How can I say no, right?

MM: For me, it was definitely the facilities. I mean, there are few universities where you could even test anything related to rockets. But at Zucrow Labs, we have the facilities, and we also have so much expertise here with energetics. It's not just one person here, one person there; we are Zucrow, and we can push that field to the limit. I'm really excited to see where we can go, because here we actually have the chance to influence the future.


Writer: Jared Pike,, 765-496-0374