Kene Akametalu was in UCSB’s engineering department from 2008-2012, receiving his B.S. in electrical engineering.
Why did you obtain an advanced degree? What inspired you to pursue a STEM-related career?
I decided to get my Ph.D after I finished at UCSB because I wanted to keep investing in my education. I didn't know how I would eventually use my Ph.D, but I knew that I was investing in a skillset (math, engineering, etc.) that was extremely valuable, and I also enjoyed learning. I was also motivated by the generational impact that it would have on my family and community both financially and in social capital.
What has led to success in your field?
There are many things that have benefited me in my career, but I want to highlight one that I hadn't thought much about prior to working, which is having good soft skills. Being able to communicate ideas, having a bit of charisma, and making sure that others on your team feel heard and included has allowed me to step into leadership opportunities sooner than I would have expected. Coincidentally, I had never actively sought to improve my soft skills, but I unintentionally cultivated them during my time at UCSB through participation in student organizations.
If you could tell your younger self or this generation’s youth advice about STEM and university education, what would you tell them?
I would tell my younger self to let my curiosities guide me a bit more, especially on topics that I didn't feel very confident in. I was a bit too focused on grades back then, which meant that I was mostly taking classes that were required or on topics that I felt more comfortable with. There were a number of unexplored classes and extra-curricular projects (both in and out of engineering) that I found interesting, and in hindsight it would have been more impactful to have followed through on them (or at least given them a chance).
What changes do you think could be made so underrepresented people in STEM can have better access to education and how STEM can be diverse?
This is a very deep question, and requires a lot more thoughtfulness, expertise, time and space than I have right now. That being said, I think the first step is to make K-12 education more equitable for underrepresented people. If more of these students were equipped with the necessary tools, enough of them would naturally enter into STEM disciplines. Unfortunately, they face many challenges. Racist redlining policies (dating as far back as the 1930's) are still impacting our society today. Underrepresented (Black and Brown) students are concentrated in poorer denser neighborhoods, which means that their schools are seeing less funding per student than some of their counterparts in the suburbs. The realities of poverty also make it such that it's hard for students (and their families) to prioritize education, which ultimately requires teachers to be extraordinary at their jobs, which still proves to be insufficient in some cases and is generally not scalable (by definition everyone should not be expected to be extraordinary at their jobs). I will stop short of giving solutions on how to address this inequity because it requires more expertise on the subject than I have, and I wouldn't want to disrespect those that are actively working in this space by just "spitballing" ideas.
Do you have any words about Black History Month?
Black History and Culture are powerful, beautiful, and captivating. We should always take pride and joy in that. Black History Month is an opportunity to double down on that pride and joy. I've had the privilege of living in Oakland, CA, for the past nine years, and it's been special for me to live in a place that celebrates Blackness. One of the notable events is the annual Black Joy Parade, which closes out Black History Month.
Do you have a hobby or participate in any fun activities?
My hobbies include reading, watching shows (comedies and documentaries), learning about personal finance and investing, exercising, dancing, and traveling.