By Adrienne Sylver
When identical twins Shalisha and Shonda Witherspoon sat in their first computer science class at Florida International University, they wondered if they had made the best choice. After all, they knew little to nothing about computers and, as Black females, they were firmly in the minority. Today, as dual recipients of one of the industry’s most notable honors for young professionals ― the Most Promising Engineer award ― they no longer question their curriculum choice less than a decade ago.
The Miami natives, first-generation college students and powerhouse engineers are used to breaking barriers. “I think there were three girls in our first programming class,” Shalisha said. “We were outperforming the boys.”
And that was just the beginning. As IBM interns, the two were part of an all-female team that won first place in an IBM hackathon. And at FIU, the two shared the Best Undergraduate Student of the Year award when they graduated with B.S. degrees in 2016. They went on to receive their M.S. from FIU in 2018.
The Witherspoons are software engineers at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in New York, where they work on distributed artificial intelligence and machine learning projects. They credit FIU for the education and opportunities afforded them. “It’s a journey that started at FIU and FIU is the reason I’m where I am today,” Shonda said.
One of their turning points at FIU came on campus, but outside of the classroom, they agree. “Our programming professor recommended us for positions as research assistants at the High-Performance Database Research Center (HPDRC). Working there really boosted my confidence and taught me new skills,” Shonda said.
Under the direction of Professor Naphtali Rishe, Ph.D., founder of the HPDRC, the women learned how to use databases in a research setting, working on the National Science Foundation-funded program, TerraFly, a geospatial database.
“Our work at HPDRC prepared us for the research environment and the collaboration between FIU and industry partners led to our internship at IBM,” Shalisha said.
As FIU undergraduates, the two also minored in Japanese language and literature and participated in a summer study abroad program at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. As graduate students, the twins received offers from IBM in both Tokyo and New York.
The women say the support they received along the way is something they want to pass on to other young minority women. They have been mentors for Black Girls CODE, an organization that offers workshops and summer camps in coding, programming, robotics and more for girls in underrepresented communities. They have also been speakers at IBM’s summer STEM camp, Girls Go Techknow.
“Giving back to the next generation is important to us,” Shalisha said. “It can be disheartening to not see yourself represented. We want to show them that someone who looks like them can become engineers or enter the tech field.”
The Most Promising Engineer award, from Career Communications Group, goes to someone who has been working in the industry for three to 10 years and is a peer-reviewed honor that considers professional and technical achievements, leadership initiative, the potential for future technical contributions and more. It is presented at the 2022 BEYA (Black Engineer of the Year Awards) STEM Conference.
The Witherspoons were surprised by the recognition, particularly since they just met the three-year mark for working in the field. “We thought it would be a good experience to apply,” Shonda said. “It’s validation that we are on the right track.”
It’s a track that FIU applauds. “We are very proud of the accomplishments of Shalisha and Shonda,” said John Volakis, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing. “They were leaders and innovators while they were here on campus, and we know they will continue to have a significant impact, both in the industry and in their roles as mentors.”