(TNS) — For computer scientist Valerie Taylor, director of the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, the seeds for her career were planted when she was a child going to work with her father, Willie Taylor, an electrical engineer.

“I’m the youngest of three, and we all grew up knowing how to build circuits,” she said. “Because my father tinkered at home, he built our first stereo. We had a vacuum tube for our first stereo. … You jiggle the vacuum tube until it lit up and it’s working.”

On Saturdays, Taylor said, her dad would bring his kids along when he went to work at Sonicraft Inc., but told them not to touch the soldering pot and the electronics.

“But a parent saying ‘Don’t touch,’ you just got someone to look out,” Taylor said. “He taught us how to build circuit boards, how to read schematics. I started working on soldering boards.”

To this day, she said, the smell of soldering irons reminds her of her childhood.

In her role at Argonne, the South Side native researches ways to make computing faster and more efficient on some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. Taylor is also principal investigator on a microelectronic devices research project for the U.S. Department of Energy.

While in high school, Taylor attended Illinois Institute of Technology’s Early Identification Program on Saturdays. She learned about engineering by building “egg-mobiles” and parlayed that into attending numerous science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs during her summers.

Taylor went to Purdue University in Indiana for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. She earned her Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. She was a faculty member at Northwestern University and Texas A&M before joining Argonne.

Throughout Taylor’s career she has been encouraging and supporting others in STEM. She co-founded the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT in Lemont. The nonprofit hosts an annual Tapia Conference, where computer scientists from underrepresented communities share research, network, and find mentorship. The event that has grown from 160 attendees in 2001 to 2,000 this year.

“We started the conference because oftentimes you go to conferences being from an underrepresented community, and do what I call ‘the scan,’ (looking for) others who look like me,” Taylor said. “I said: Let’s have a conference in computing to bring everybody together to celebrate diversity and all you have to do is look to your neighbor to see people who look like you, see speakers who look like you and you have community. You may go back to your institution and be the only, but while you’re sitting in a session at the Tapia Conference, you are far from the only. … It’s about building community, making networks, but also staying technical.”

As part of Wednesday’s National STEM Day celebration, which encourages youths to explore their interests in STEM, we spoke with Taylor about diversity in the field, science fiction and artificial intelligence. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: There’s been a major push for more diversity in STEM. Are you seeing more diversity in real time?

A: The National Science Foundation published a report on diversity in STEM, and they were showing that compared to a decade ago, the numbers are increasing. However, in terms of the overall field and percentages, there’s still a large gap. When you start to look at the population, and then you look at those in the field, there’s a really big gap in the numbers, in terms of ethnicity, and in terms of gender as well.

Q: How can we get that gap to be smaller?

A: A large part has to do with the environment. For example, you go from high school to college, and a question that comes up is: Are your classes welcoming? Or are there assumptions being made when you walk into the classroom? What happens in the classroom where you’re the only? And the numbers go down as you go to higher degrees. I went through that, being the only Black woman in the class. You look around … and have to specify “I’m not here to take notes.” After I got the Ph.D., I went somewhere with a grad student of mine and they thought the grad student was the professor. … I enjoy my job at Argonne National Labs, but you have places where it’s the mindset of people that have to change and that takes a long time to change. And sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s really changed.

Q: What’s been your most memorable experience in the field so far?

A: When I finished my Ph.D., I was faculty at Northwestern University. I went to my first conference … and that’s when I met Rick Stevens, who was just becoming the division director for the mathematics and computer science division. He said, “Why don’t you come out and give a talk?” I came out and gave a talk and found so many people in high performance computing. When I came to Argonne, I started talking with people doing things in high-performance computing. I was like, I found my community.

Q: What is your bread and butter at Argonne?

A: My bread and butter is making computers more energy efficient and that’s looking at reducing execution time, but you also care about how much power is being used. Power is significant. For example, Aurora is going to be the next exascale supercomputer, which means it’s a billion billion — not 2 billion. But a billion billion operations per second. You have applications that need that and it can take days, but the machine can require 60 megawatts, which is a significant amount of power. So now when you talk about going into future needs, the amount of power this needs becomes a major issue.

Q: Should we be afraid of Skynet becoming a reality, computers becoming self-aware?

A: We are a long way off on that. You look at what the mind is able to do, make connections in split seconds. But ChatGPT took months of training to get the model that’s being used. And that’s on large-scale machines.

There’s a lot of good that can come from artificial intelligence. For example, with the pandemic and looking at vaccines, there was the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory — that’s where the U.S. Department of Energy across the different labs, held computing resources to look at good candidates, in terms of vaccines to look at COVID. That’s where you’re using artificial intelligence, that’s helping you do the search to narrow down the search. With any technology, you can have malicious actors with that technology. The important aspect is to put in place guardrails around that technology.

Q: Are you a Trekkie?

A: I’m a Trekkie. A fan of the original.

Q: Your favorite character?

A: Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Nyota Uhura. You look at the original now and laugh at some of the graphics. But back in the day, they had the communicator and now we have the cellphone. I joke with some friends, we need something to “beam me up.”

Q: Can you elaborate on what you’re working on with the Department of Energy?

A: We do open science. A lot of the software we develop is available via open source. The libraries are widely available. A lot of the software is available via GitHub.

Q: What can parents and laypeople do to help STEM professionals diversify the field?

A: Science is all about asking the question, why? You begin to understand why things work as they do. It could be with nature, biology, materials. When you understand why things occur as they do, then questions come up like: “Can I develop a material that has the following characteristics?” The part that parents can do is to let students know that it’s OK if they flunk an exam. That’s one of many exams; it does not mean that they’re not fit for that field or they shouldn’t be in the class. All it means is that you need to go see the teaching assistant so that you can understand misunderstandings.

Q: When people hear your name, what do you want people to think?

A: Valerie Taylor, an excellent computer scientist who gave back to the community and cared about increasing diversity. My dad always told us we have to give back. “Never judge. Always give because there but for the grace of God go I.”

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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