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Daphne Smith Continues Spelman’s Legacy of Pioneering Women in STEM

June 2020

Spelman data scientist Daphne Smith

While growing up in Ocala, Florida, Daphne L. Smith, Ph.D., C’80, never thought she’d become a pioneering mathematician. She just knew she loved math and science. So, when her high school assistant principal, Thelma Menchan Parker, C’34, encouraged her to attend her alma mater, Smith excitedly perused a Spelman College recruitment brochure that promoted women in the sciences.

“When I saw those pictures, I thought I could be one of those Spelman students who study science, as well as math,” Smith recalls. “I came in on the first wave of the effort in which the College was trying to steer more Spelman students into the sciences. I came in at a time when they were pioneering women in math.”




Making the Numbers Matter

In 1985, Smith became the first-ever Spelman graduate to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics, and the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She started her career as a faculty member at the University of Georgia, Spelman and Georgia State University. In 2004, her desire to use her math and statistics skills to make real-world connections prompted a move from the classroom to the corporate world in analyst positions in the healthcare and insurance industries.

Today, Smith works in a new position as a business analytics adviser with Cigna, a global health service company.

“There is so much data that companies want to analyze now. Data has revolutionized the way businesses plan and make decisions,” Smith says.

Sharpening a Competitive Edge

That Smith has found success in a data-driven job market where African Americans are underrepresented is not lost on Spelman. As the demand for data science and analytics experts continues to intensify, so has the College’s commitment to giving Spelman women a competitive edge in the fields. 

By 2021, according to a 2017 Business-Higher Education Forum report, college graduates with a skill set that includes a data background will be two times more likely to be hired than their peers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that growing data-science needs will create 11.5 million job openings by 2026. Yet, African American representation in the field is only 1%, according to a 2019 Obsidian Security report on decision-makers in data science.

To prepare students and help close the diversity gap, Spelman professors have been working to integrate data science into the curriculum. In 2016, Brandeis Marshall, Ph.D., professor of computer science at Spelman, and a colleague at Morehouse College received a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to train faculty at both institutions on data science principles that apply to interdisciplinary areas ranging from business to biology.

The College also is part of an alliance that received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation two years ago to support faculty in the development of data-science curricula and to increase diversity in the data workforce.

The fields of data science and data analytics are related, yet distinct. Data scientists write algorithms and build statistical models to extract information needed to solve complex problems. Data analysts examine large data sets to identify trends and draw insights to help businesses make more strategic decisions.

Spelman students are engaged in a variety of interdisciplinary projects that examine the societal impact data science and analytics. From shopping habits and healthcare to education and criminal justice, data-driven decisions affect everyday lives. For instance, computer science majors Cameryn Boyd and Thulani Vereen, both C’2020, are analyzing data to determine which voters are purged from Georgia voter registration rolls.

Economics major Taylor Brown, C’2021, participated in a 2019 summer research program at the University of Virginia Data Science Institute, where she used mortgage data to investigate the relationship between the rate of home loan denials and factors such as income, race and gender.

“Many debate on how best to define data science,” says Raquel Hill, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of computer and information sciences at Spelman. “Most agree that it’s not just a combination of the traditional quantitative fields of computer science and statistics, but that it is far broader – encompassing various disciplines that enable us to not only analyze data but to consider, for example, the ethical use of data. Considering the ethical use of data is one way to limit bias that may be introduced when we consider only the data values.”

Investing in Data Science

data-science-thumbSpelman and other Atlanta University Center Consortium members — Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and the Morehouse School of Medicine — launched the AUCC Data Science Initiative in 2019 with a five-year, $8.25 million investment from UnitedHealth Group. The initiative will offer technical classes for AUC students who want to specialize in data science or learn data analysis, as well as provide students from all majors with an expanded facility to extract value from data.

“Data literacy in our current and future workforce is absolutely critical. This need is exacerbated by a dramatic shortage of diversity in the profession,” says Patricia Lewis, executive vice president and chief human resources officer of UnitedHealth.

“It is our hope that UnitedHealth Group’s anchor investment in AUCC’s data science program will produce graduates to address the acute shortage of data scientists, but importantly, contribute to a 21st-century healthcare workforce that increasingly delivers culturally competent care.” To that end, the AUCC Data Science Initiative’s work is well underway, says AUCC executive director Todd Greene.

One foundational aspect is providing opportunities for faculty development in data science and data analytics. The AUCC hosted a series of faculty development workshops in January. Other 2020 plans include an AUCC Pre-Freshman Data Science Summer Program, an introductory undergraduate foundations data course in the fall, and a data science symposium. The goal is to eventually offer a data science minor, major and graduate introductory course.

Beyond the strong partnership with UnitedHealth, Greene says there is an active discussion on having the initiative join with other potential partners representing a cross-section of industries.

“Jobs in data science are in highest demand and pay well above average starting salaries,” he says. “The AUCC Data Science Initiative is well-positioned to be the largest producer of African Americans with data science credentials and to develop leaders who bring diverse thinking, especially given the social and ethical contexts needed to develop insights and to responsibly extract value from data.” 

Charting a Path

Spelman data scientist Daphne SmithAlthough the data revolution hadn’t emerged during her time at Spelman, Smith credits visionary Spelman math professors like the legendary Etta Z. Falconer, Ph.D., with charting a path for her future achievement. As her adviser and mentor, Falconer encouraged Smith to pursue graduate studies and devised a program to help her get there.

This photo was taken during a summer job after Daphne L. Smith’s junior year (1979) with two other math majors from Spelman College. They were hired for summer positions at the IBM campus in East Fishkill, New York. Dr. Mikhail had been a visiting faculty member in the mathematics department at Spelman College. (Shown left to right): Daphne L. Smith, C’80; Theresa Carter, C’80; Dr. W. Mikhail (IBM statistician); Vaughn Morrison (former Spelman mathematics faculty); Ylonda Fauntleroy, C’80; Dr. William Baker (former Spelman mathematics faculty).

Spelman STEM alumna Daphne Smith

Smith Credits Visionary Spelman Math Professors Like Etta Z. Falconer, Ph.D., With Charting a Path for her Future Achievements 

During the fall semester of her senior year, Smith completed an independent study project on numerical analysis with then Spelman math instructor Sylvia Bozeman, Ph.D., who was completing her doctorate in math at Emory University at the time. That spring, Smith honed her research skills as an intern at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. 

“They really put together a special program for my graduate school preparation because nothing of that type existed at that point,” Smith says. “I saw Dr. Falconer as a pioneering Black woman in math. She had an amazing vision, and it has borne fruit with so many Spelman STEM graduates now.” Now it is Smith who is considered a trailblazer. Her success helped propel efforts to expand STEM programs at Spelman, says Bozeman, who is now a math professor emerita and co-founder of Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education, a national mentoring program for women entering graduate studies in mathematical sciences. 

“Daphne was an advanced student. She was a pioneering student. We were very excited about her achievement,” Bozeman says. “Often, Ph.D. grads go into teaching, but Daphne has been adventurous. She has used her skills in teaching and industry. As she has learned, moved and experienced more, she has given back to Spelman.”

Smith has been actively involved in the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College since finishing graduate school, joining the local chapter whenever she relocated to a new city. In her role as a past chapter president and the former Great Lakes regional coordinator, she helped revitalize several chapters along the way. In 2011, she received the NAASC Hall of Fame Award – the organization’s highest honor. While serving as the NAASC national president from 2012 to 2016, she raised more than $100,000 for its Donald and Isabel Stewart Endowed Scholarship.

“Daphne’s technical and very organized, and she loves Spelman like most of us do,” says Sylvia Watts-Flippo, C’98, an engineering manager at Lockheed Martin in San Antonio, Texas, and a member of NAASC’s technology committee. “Whatever she does, in her career or activities, she gives 100 percent. She’s one of our trailblazers.”

This feature, by Atlanta freelance writer and editor Connie Green Freightman, appeared in the spring 2020 Spelman Messenger.