May 4 marked the day that SaBra Neal, a Ph.D. candidate of the School of Computational Science and Engineering (CSE) joined the group of over 100 College of Computing graduate students receiving their degrees. Neal graduated with a focus on energy consumption and distributed simulations in mobile environments research and was advised by Regents’ Professor Richard Fujimoto.
This accomplishment also marked the day that Neal became the first African American Ph.D. candidate to graduate from CSE.
An invested advisor can make the difference
After graduating with a Bachelors of Science Degree in Computer Science from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Neal came to Georgia Tech to attend a visitation weekend for admitted students. It was after meeting with Fujimoto that Neal solidified her decision to accept admission to the Ph.D. program with CSE and with Fujimoto as her advisor for the next five years.
“Of course I applied to other graduate schools, but Fujimoto played a fundamental role in my choosing CSE,” said Neal. “When I went to the visitation weekend I felt very comfortable talking with him about the type of advisement he was giving because he reached out to me, whereas other schools just told me about the money I would make, and I wanted to work on the type of research he was investigating.”
Neal’s research focuses on modeling and simulation with a particular interest in dynamic data driven application systems (DDDAS) that are executed on mobile platforms.
“I went this route because I am very interested in mobile computing and my research is focused on running embedded simulations on mobile systems, which is why energy consumption is a concern because its dependent upon a battery for operation.”
However, despite Neal’s long list of accomplishments, including winning the ACM SIGSIM WSC Student Travel Award two years in a row, she has had to pave the way for herself as an African American woman in computing.
You don’t get a Ph.D. to be called doctor
“If you just look at it by the numbers and look at African Americans who complete a Ph.D., it is less than 7 percent in the United States. I haven’t grasped the significance of that because I’m still in this environment, but it is overwhelming. It’s even overwhelming to be called Dr. SaBra Neal. You don’t get the Ph.D. to be called doctor. That can’t be your purpose.”
Neal continued, “The bigness of finishing it is just very gratifying and I don’t see it as an anomaly.”
“This has been my job for the past five years and I think that this is the part of the Ph.D. program people struggle with. Even if I was a different race, it is a very solo thing. More than anything, it’s going to really teach you a lot about yourself and you are going to have to face your own insecurities – which is an important skill in life.”
Confidence and dedication are key
Neal became interested in computer science while still in high school thanks to the Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science program. At a young age she showed signs of promise in this field. She began to excel as early as 2007 when her high school teacher reached out to her parents to tell them how exceptional she was and to invite her to take part in a pilot research program.
Of those in the high school computer science program, Neal was one of the few to move on and pursue the field in college. This dedication and resolve shown at an early age is what has been a trademark of Neal’s character ever since.
“You have to persevere and be consistent despite your surroundings, despite your ethnicity or your gender. You can’t let those factors drive your future. I didn’t look into CSE statistics at all because that wasn’t my focus. If the program is good, then it is good,” she said.
“My parents have always instilled in me to be secure as a black woman. I hope that I can help bring diversity to this field. I understand that people from the outside looking in see that it has been done and can be done. People can become intimidated because they don’t see someone that doesn’t look like them, but that is something you have to overcome.”
Although African Americans are underrepresented in higher education, Neal found a group on campus that helped her transition at Georgia Tech.
“What really helped me was joining the Black Graduate Students Association of Georgia Tech. A lot of the seasoned women doctoral students reached out to me and we were able to talk things through and discuss how to overcome issues that we were facing through our journey.”