Early Love Of Math Led Her To The Role Of CEO

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NPR News Interview

NPR interview: Lisa Dyson, CEO of Kiverdi, a sustainable oil and chemical company, discusses an early role model, her work and the need to boost technology education.

Share your personal story. How did you get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?
My cousin is a space engineer. She was my role model. I always loved math. She loved math too and applied it to building satellites as an electrical engineer, initially at Hughes Aircraft Co. So, early in my life, I decided I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I ended up becoming a physicist.
My first research project in physics was at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab
where I saw math come to life in the form of magnetic field lines in tokamak reactors, which were designed for renewable energy generation. I went on to get a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and do other things in my career.
Kiverdi brought me back to my original interest in renewable energy. We have taken our business beyond energy and are now using innovations in biotech to make renewable materials.
What impact do you hope to make with your work?
I want to change the way materials are manufactured by making sustainably produced materials in a way that is profitable for the industry. At Kiverdi, we are commercializing a technology that converts CO2 and carbon waste into oil using microbes. This oil can be used to make renewable materials to replace their petroleum-derived counterparts. We call what we do carbon engineering and our goal is to create a sustainable world for our progeny.
What could improve diversity in the tech industry?
When I was in high school, I wanted to learn the programming language C, but there were no classes that were being offered. So I asked my math teacher to teach me and he did. He actually took his free period, where he'd normally be doing other things and taught me C programming every single day. So for those that didn't ask, that option wasn't available. And still today, there are many schools throughout our nation that don't offer things like programming and other tech courses.
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Transcript
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Finally in All Tech today, a note about an online conversation taking place this week. It's about diversity in the science and technology fields. Big tech firms have released statistics and pledged to do more to diversify. Facebook, for instance, recently said that just 4 percent of their U.S. tech workers are black or Hispanic. More broadly, according to a survey this year by the Anita Borg Institute, women account for about 21 percent of the technical workforce. But those figures don't tell the whole story. This week on Twitter, Tumblr and our All Tech blog, some people of color who are in tech leadership roles are talking about their personal experiences, people like Lisa Dyson.
LISA DYSON: I am the CEO and cofounder of Kiverdi. We make oil from CO2 using the power of biotechnology.
SIEGEL: Dyson is African-American. She has a PhD in physics from MIT. Her interest in technology goes back to her teen years.
DYSON: When I was in high school, I wanted to learn the programming language C, but there were no classes. So I asked my math teacher to teach me. He actually took his free period where he'd normally be doing other things and taught me C programming every single day. So for those that didn't ask, that option wasn't available. And still today, there are many schools throughout our nation that don't offer things like programming and other tech courses.
SIEGEL: Lisa Dyson says greater access to tech in schools will ultimately boost diversity in science and technology. To join the conversation this week on Twitter and Tumblr, you can follow the hashtag #RaceOnTech. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Dr. Lisa Dyson