K-12 Influencers: Sarah Lee

“I feel it’s a responsibility for anyone who breaks through a certain ceiling… to send the elevator back down and give others a helpful lift.” ~ Kevin Spacey

Tell us about yourself along with a fun fact!
In 2011 I followed my passion to give back to my community in my last few years before retirement, and joined the Computer Science and Engineering faculty at Mississippi State University where I am also a Gender Studies faculty affiliate. I am enjoying having fun and making a difference in my sunset career!

I bring software development and project management experience to the classroom from two decades of experience in the information technology division of a Fortune 100 company. My research interests include intervention strategies to increase the pipeline of underrepresented groups in computing majors, and human and social aspects of software engineering.

In November 2016, I was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (NSF INCLUDES) program. Visit to learn more!

Favorite website / app:
My favorite tech tool is my iphone. I can stay connected anywhere!

Someone who inspires you and knowledge they have imparted:

My children inspire me to see the value in working to live, not living to work.

Challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it:
As a software develop manager for a business critical, high visibility system, I was on my cell phone a lot in the early 2000s supporting my team and answering calls from upper management when there was a hiccup in the system. One day, walking into a retail store, my young son looked up at me when my work phone rang and said “Mom, you will not have to worry about that phone when you are dead.” It was that moment that I realized my work and family life had become unbalanced. I made a decision to return to an individual contributor role, and pursue my PhD in computer science at a local university. I believed that if I could do my part to increase the number of women in computing professions and ultimately in upper management positions in corporations, that they can change the policies and procedures that impact the lives of mothers and fathers who work in the field but also choose to raise a family.

Describe what it means for you to be a K-12 Influencer in STEM.
When I followed my passion to return to academia, I begin to look for ways to encourage young women to engage with computing. One of the first programs I implemented was the Mississippi Affiliate of the Aspirations in Computing Award (through affiliation with the National Center for Women and Information Technology). In the first group of high school girls that we recognized, I was introduced to a bright young woman who, as the child of an incarcerated mother, had been homeless for part of her high school years. By working with her to get her into other programs that provided financial and emotional support, she is now a senior in Software Engineering and working a second summer as an intern at Bank of America in North Carolina. This experience revealed to me that we need programs throughout the state to engage students on the computing pathway, and provide support that enables those students, many of them first generation college students, to stay on the pathway to further education and careers in computing. A few years later, I continue to work to evolve those programs and am able to celebrate the early success of many.

As a resident of a mostly rural state in the deep south of the United States, I believe that the primary impact is offering hope to children who may otherwise struggle to find that hope for a better life. Close to 50% of the public school population is female, and a similar percentage of the total number of school children are African American. By offering co-curricular activities that engage students from elementary to high school in computing and cybersecurity, students are able to develop self-confidence with skills (technical in addition to soft skills) that might otherwise be viewed as unattainable to them in their communities. They are also able to learn how to become good digital citizens, protecting themselves online and developing online behavior that ultimately protects others around them.

Picture from a GenCyber Elementary Camp for Girls held June 26-30 in Columbus Mississippi.

What knowledge would you impart to other K-12 Influencers in STEM?
Engaging young people in STEM is needed, but we must also work collectively to light a pathway and provide ongoing engagement and support.  

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