i-Trek Spotlight: Imani Palmer

i-Trek’s Intrepid Webmaster: Facing New Opportunities and Challenges at Los Alamos

Imani Palmer is the webmaster for i-Trek. She focuses on website design and development. She is currently a second year PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a focus in security. She also serves as a research assistant in the Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL).

Interestingly, as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Imani did not focus on research. It wasn’t something that she even imagined she would ever pursue. That came later, when someone asked: “Why not?”  What draws Imani to the i-Trek mission is her desire to encourage undergraduates to pursue the research opportunities that she herself did not avail herself of during her undergraduate years.

In a friendly telephone conversation I interviewed Imani about her studies and expected career trajectory.

Q:  So, Imani tell me, how did you get on this computer science/cyber security path?

A:  It was a pretty direct path from undergraduate school to graduate school. Funny, when I entered college I had dreams about becoming a doctor. After biology class I decided neuro science medicine was not something I wanted to do. Or at least I wasn’t committed to the long intense years of study. I was decent in math and science so I opted to major in computer science. I never programmed before. I didn’t have black or female mentors to guide me. I charted my course. Oh, and I prayed a lot.

But even in college I didn’t necessarily think I would pursue a PhD in computer science.

Q: So what changed?

A: I had an internship during my junior year at Lockheed Martin. My dad worked at Lockheed Martin in systems engineering. So during my internship I looked for errors and created a program to detect errors. That was boring, seriously. But this is where I discovered that I could make a successful career out of being web master. Even more important I learned my advanced education could be paid for almost in its entirety through grants and scholarship if I pursued computer science. It was a no brainer. Go to graduate school and focus on computer science.  

Q: Where do you want to be in 5 years?

A: Graduate and on my way to becoming rich.

Q:  What’s your passion?

A:   Website/computer security. I am interested in those efforts to protect our national government from hacking whether done domestically or internationally. Essentially, I would like to focus my efforts on helping people.

Q:   What are the obstacles you face in achieving your career goals?

A:    Understanding multi-cultural dynamics in the workforce. Many of the colleagues I have had both within the university and out in the workplace are foreign nationals and typically men. Women of color, specifically African American women, are even more under-represented. There are a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what I as a woman of color can achieve. It’s not so much that I function in a hostile work environment. Rather, I find myself in the position of disproving people’s false assumptions just by being there and doing good work. Again, it’s not really about harassment. It’s having to remind others that hey, you know what, I know what I’m doing and you know it too, so stop the nonsense, already.

Luckily, I have had terrific mentor, advisors and supervisors who have been very supportive and ready to give me a chance when I demonstrate my willingness to accept the challenge.

Q:  This past summer you had an opportunity to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in Los Alamos, New Mexico. According to Wikipedia it is one of two laboratories in the United States where classified work towards the design of nuclear weapons is undertaken.

So you were there among physicists, engineers, chemists, material scientists, mathematicians, biologists, geoscientists and fellow computational science colleagues. That’s impressive. What was the experience like for you?

A:  It was a three month project. I was part of team of 10 people from different schools both nationally and internationally. Our task was to develop better security defenses

Q:  What did you like about the experience? What were the expectations of the work, the goals and the experience?

A:  Flexible hours. I also worked with a mentor and we met weekly to discuss the target goals and objectives. I guess overall what I loved about the experience was the sense of collaboration. It was a collegial environment where we bounced ideas off each other and everyone had something to bring to the table. People were open-minded. It was a great time with great people.

Q: Do you have anything else to add about your Los Alamos experience? What was New Mexico like?

A:  Oh, I think people in New Mexico are way nicer than folks up North – at least relative to where I am. Professionally, the research process was more flexible. Even the physical work space is designed to allow people explore, walk around and interact with each other. Like I said before, the atmosphere is very collegial. Also my work mentors, advisors and fellow colleagues tended to be younger. In my internship group we were 3 women, 2 blacks and 1 international student from England.

Q:  What was the worst part of the trip?

A:  Being in New Mexico.

Q: Wait a minute. Didn’t you just finish extolling the virtues of Los Alamos?

A: Well, the truth is there is no diversity beyond the laboratory. In the actual town I stood out. Plus trying to find beauty and hair care products was nearly impossible.  

Q:  How has this experience changed you?

A:  I learned that I enjoy working in a research lab. I think I would like to try a corporate environment, say for example Bank of America . I do have an internship with Intel in May 2015.  I applied early in the fall of 2014 and received the acceptance in November 2014.

Q: Congratulations on landing your internship. How does your Los Alamos internship demonstrate the ideals of i-trek where you turn research into empowerment and knowledge?

A: It helped me discover viable ways to use programming as a career and as a way to empower people. A lot of minorities in STEM tend to steer in the direction of the health sciences. They don’t perceive the opportunities that are available in computer science at an advanced level. I am hoping my experience encourages people to take a second look at computer science.

Computer science is challenging. And while there are opportunities to work in friendly and collegial places. That’s not always the case. It can be alienating if you are a woman and/or a person of color. But again, you just have to be open-minded and have a positive attitude. Many people who are in computer science at the advanced level majored in programming either in college or had a great deal of exposure at the middle, junior high and high school level. What I have learned is that even if you are someone who did not have those advantages, you can still catch up and be successful. I did not have programming experience prior to beginning my graduate studies, and I’m doing okay. If I can do it, others can too.