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A cartoon woman uses a computer. Women in IT is spelled out above her, with the IT making a representation of the Old Well

March is Women’s History Month and ITS is celebrating by highlighting Carolina women in technology. All month long, ITS News will share profiles and Q&As to share the breadth and diversity of the Tar Heel women-in-IT experience. For the full list of profiles and to read some ways to get involved, visit Celebrating Women’s History Month with Carolina women in IT.

Tell us about your current role and what you do.

I study segments of human and animal genomes (DNA sequence in cells), which are poorly understood. This research is impossible to do without bioinformatics, an application of IT to biological data such as DNA sequences. As scientific research becomes more interdisciplinary, the distinctions between traditional discipline-based silos become blurry. I’m actually a bench researcher by training. For the kind of experiments I used to do 10 years ago, the data sets weren’t as large. Today with big data, we routinely discuss how to organize and store our data, in order to be able to analyze it effectively. These aspects that I didn’t consider much five years ago are now regular conversations.

What path led you to IT and where you are now?

My path was almost inevitable. I’m very interested in the “why,” why a biological process happens. I appreciate that it happens and that it results in some effect, but I really want to know what’s driving it. The ability to understand those kinds of questions is increasingly possible because we’re able to take this granular approach. Since data are now so accessible and easy to generate, I went from pipetting and other bench techniques to gaining computational know-how. Partially because of the pandemic, I decided, “Let’s go back to school and get retooled, so I can handle big data analysis and be qualified to do so.” Even though more school was something I never envisioned myself doing, it was just more efficient for me to do so, so that I could do routine analyses myself and gain the skills to be able to train students in bioinformatics. So altogether, based on where the field was going, wanting to operate more independently, plus the timing of the pandemic — those three things led to where I am now.

About Keriayn Smith

Keriayn Smith
Keriayn Smith

Keriayn Smith is an associate professor in the School of Data Science and Society, with a secondary appointment in the department of genetics in the School of Medicine. She is an academic scientist whose research focuses on RNA biology, with emphasis on molecular interactions. Smith also founded a multi-national 501(c)(3) organization, the Society for Scientific Advancement, which serves geographically diverse, underserved and underrepresented students in STEM fields.

What does your role as a leader mean to you?

Being a leader means that it is important that I provide support that is tailored to the needs of the target audience — whether these are trainees, mentees or colleagues, since individuals’ needs differ. At times, it means I get to be a mirror, so that someone else may see what could be possible in themselves, or in their neighbors.

What excites you about the future of your field?

I’m excited about the increased capabilities and capacity that technological advances have provided or are emerging. We are now able to rapidly address research questions with remarkable speed and efficiency. I believe the current record for sequencing the entire human genome is now around five hours. Moreover, the influence of generative AI alone on research and general operational performance is staggering. Goals that would have been thought of as dreamy not long ago currently seem just around the corner!

Has your gender been a factor in your career trajectory, path or choices? How so?

I think so, even if subconsciously, and even if I’ve grown more immune or my shell has gotten thicker. As a woman, particularly as a Black woman, I’ve realized the importance in noticing when there is imbalance in the spaces that I enter, and how critical it is to ask — why is this so? How can I help to reduce this imbalance?

When I’ve thought that my participation would make a difference, I try to steer towards that direction, even if it’s uncomfortable. While I generally approach things with intentionality, I think these sensibilities (intentionally or inadvertently) influenced my career path.

Have you had a mentor in your career or someone else who made a difference for you? Have you mentored others?

Two mentors, at the very start of my research career come to mind immediately — each at quite different career stages, but both with a level of caring that still resonates with me. Their investment in the well-being of their mentees was so striking that it engendered productive environments back then and influenced how I view training to this day.

What would make it possible for more women to work and succeed in IT?

I think women need a “fair shake.” I am also hopeful that academic and corporate entities acknowledge the value that inclusivity brings in broadening and deepening cognitive thought, as well as the value that women are bringing to teams since we bring diversity in operational approaches.

I do believe that an individual or group of people actively working towards improving a culture will encourage and stimulate others ‘to join the movement.’ When new people enter a space, they are aware of what the space looks like and then they kind of conform, because that’s how it is. However, if new people come with an energy, where they did not just accept the biases that are there, then I think just that energy could help to change the culture and stimulate progress. So those two things — mindset changes of both “old school” and new entrants — could result in more efficient progress.

What resources do you recommend for women who are looking to start or advance their IT careers?

Since we’re swimming in so many high-quality resources (e.g., DataCamp, Coursera, and increased availability of even free courses by universities and corporate entities), my recommendation would be more an attitude than specific resources — i.e., boldness — in the exploration of new avenues, in seeking and responding to opportunities, and in the kinds of research questions being asked.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’d just like to reinforce the value that women add, particularly in a field that remains male-dominated. Through a leadership project stimulated by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Faculty Excellence, I have been looking at the numbers and … the disparities remain striking, suggesting we have significant work to do yet.


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