From Hidden Figures to Key Players: The Experience of the Modern Black Woman in STEM
By Jason Karlen
The introduction of a Black woman into NASA’s Space Task Group was back in 1961. Katherine Johnson, 100 years old and still alive today, was a young female Black mathematician with a unique expertise in analytical geometry. Her calculations of orbital mechanics as an employee of NASA were critical for the early success of U.S. manned spaceflights. However, as a Black woman in a predominately white field, her story was obscured by the racial politics of the time, and her impact was relatively unknown for the better part of our nation’s history. Her story, and the stories of the other young black women involved in NASA’s space endeavors, were portrayed in the Academy Award nominated film, Hidden Figures in 2016. Katherine Johnson was an essential mind who allowed astronauts to transcend the confounds of conventional physics and aerodynamics that led to the first man on the moon, and yet her history was not as mainstream as it should’ve been. Her story, and the stories of many other young, intelligent, and gifted Black women have remained in the shadows for the greater part of the twentieth century, but this hidden narrative has now begun to shift.
In 2019, Black women in STEM have stepped forward from the background and bask in the glory of the spotlight with no plans of stepping aside anytime soon. Academic institutions have made concerted efforts to make spaces available in the form of scholarships, mentorship programs, and community events that provide and inform women about the opportunities that lie with a STEM degree. For many generations, these opportunities were nonexistent and despite having been proven effective. But in a field historically controlled by white men, how comfortable are the women in these spaces today? The answer amongst the women I interviewed, all Black with degrees in STEM and in various stages of their career, shared the same sentiment of unease, but echoed throughout their responses was an emergence of more women of color stepping up by way of the communities they reach out to in order to combat this sense of unease.
I took the opportunity to speak with Black women currently in STEM to learn about their experiences. These fruitful conversations bore incredible advice that can help the young Black woman in STEM from undergraduate to surgical residency or entering the engineering field that I wanted to share with the readers here at SVGE Magazine.
Ryann is currently a student at the University of Hartford studying Civil Engineering with a concentration in Environmental Studies with a minor in Mathematics. She is a member and Torch Carrier for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and president of the Black Students Union at her school. Her mission statement is simple all the while profound and uplifting, she feels that:
Helping people, anyone, realize their potential in being Black and existing [has] always been my goal. To make sure that after every meeting, even if you are a bit more comfortable in being proud and being Black, I have succeeded all the way.
To Ryann, what is essential for the Black woman to exist in STEM is that they love themselves and are unashamed. Ryann’s advice is threefold, and very important:
The first thing that someone who is younger has to understand is the blatant reality of it all, unfortunately. Understand that through our ancestry, we are put in a position to lose. And the only way to win is to work toward it. You can’t lollygag, you can’t step in and out—it’s a mission. You have to know your mission statement. You have to set that mission statement, and that’s your guide to getting to where you need to be. If what you’re doing is not helping you achieve [that], it should be filtered out. Of course, you have to do things that make you happy, but you have to understand what your mission statement is. Second, you have to want it for yourself—you can’t want it for someone else. When you want it for someone else, it’s easy to get distracted. [Lastly], you have to be yourself. Constantly be yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you who to be.
Yeli is a recent graduate from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study majoring in Art, Design, and Code. She believes that maintaining an
Active cynicism is more healthy. When people talk about tech, they talk about it being [more] innovative and progressive than most industries. It’s not. We still have to deal with all of the same things in any industry… knowing things might happen and having a backup plan when they do… it all comes back to finding a community and being aware of the things that do happen.
Yeli is currently a software engineer for LinkedIn, and finds herself at ease in the environment she’s in. In emphasizing community, she referenced certain groups that are helpful for any woman who decides to pursue a career in tech, such as: Code2040 and Ladies Get Paid. Code2040 seeks to support young software engineers and provide workshops that help to advance their techniques and skills while in undergrad to make them more competitive players in today’s aggressive job market. Ladies Get Paid is a nationwide organization that seeks to teach women about how to empower themselves in the workforce, negotiate wages, and navigate the space of working in a male dominated field.
Douye is an New York University graduate with a degree in Biology. As a Black woman pursuing a STEM degree, she found difficulty establishing her niche within the field and also found that her identity as a Black woman played parts in time—it contributed to her sense of unease in an institution that was predominantly white. She feels, however, that there are more opportunities than before for women of color to make a difference in STEM. Currently, Douye is a junior clinical data analyst for a Tempus, a rising biotech startup, and is grateful to the communities that helped foster the many successes that have come her way. From hospital volunteer work and pancreatic cancer research leading to co-authorship on a manuscript published on the cover of the esteemed Cancer Cell journal, she makes a point of extending her gratitude to her community of friends that helped her get to where she wanted to be. At the center of it all she feels that support is key. The road that led to where she is currently, though, did not start how she would have imagined it, she found that the
Internal pressure [I felt] started in senior year of high school when I told my counselor I got into NYU. Her face [said], ‘Really? How could someone like you get into NYU?’ and that was all I could think about. The person who was supposed to help me prepare me for college didn’t even think I should be in the college I [was] accepted into.
Disbelief is something a Black woman in any field eventually comes across. Douye looked to the story of her father overcoming countless obstacles to become a doctor in America, and constantly striving to be better is what helps her in times when she is down. When she reflects upon what has been pivotal for her success thus far, she shares that
Support is one of the main things that gets me back up every time I’m down…and [helps me] to stop thinking that every mistake or every failure meant that nothing was possible anymore. Once I started thinking like that, it became easier for me to be comfortable with the choices I had made in my life, every success [and] every failure. You should always believe that you are deserving of everything in your life, whether it be by chance or not. Never feel bad for doing well.
Confidence within is what Douye recommends for the young Black woman in STEM. She also notes that community, friends, family, and general support are the necessary ingredients for a bright future. Douye has continued her successes and will always be prideful of both her wins and losses as they shape the arch of her journey in the world of science. Extending that sense of pride, despite all of the obstacles, made her story extremely humbling and inspiring for me.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Dr. Hundeyin was amongst the first cohort of individuals of color to attend Trent University and carried on to Medical School at Penn State University Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. She recently completed her Post-Doctoral Fellowship at New York University’s Langone’s School of Medicine studying immune signaling effects of Pancreatic Cancer leading to multiple publications in important scientific journals respected worldwide. These were her remarks about the current landscape of STEM for young women of color today:
The environment is more receptive to the young Black female today than when I got into medical school 11 years ago. Definitely more receptive, there [are] definitely more opportunities and more safe spaces for Black girls to shine and be themselves, compared to what it was before. I would definitely encourage Black women, in particular, if you’re interested in science—for example when I was in high school there [were] only two girls in science class out of a class of 40 kids—if you’re interested in STEM… feel free, reach out to anyone, regardless [of whether or not they’re] a POC, reach out [and] talk to people, get your networking, shine, do your best academically because there’s space for you. The world needs you. The world needs women of color in STEM.
Dr. Hundeyin is a member of Diva Docs (Boston Area), a consortium of young Black female medical professionals who meet regularly to share their experiences and tips for succeeding in the medical world as women of color. She is also a member of the Young Black Doctors Association, a Facebook group where doctors of colors nationwide can connect and network with one another for growth.
Looking back from the past into the present, women of color have consistently found themselves at a disadvantage. Though institutional changes have been put in place, there are still inequalities that exist which make the path to a young woman’s success in the world of STEM more difficult than for her male counterpart. Despite these disadvantages, there exists a glimmer of hope within the communities of women. Young women everywhere, including the four I reached out to for this article, are making a difference for themselves and their sisters everyday by achieving their own professional acumen and success.
What I can ascertain from engaging with these accomplished women is that are major things a Black woman should consider when entering any space—academic or professional—and those things are confidence, community, and striving for personal growth. After achieving your degree, your internship, your first full-time job, or acceptance into medical school, remember the world we live in. Every day it changes for the better and that, in part, is due to women who take pen to paper on what they choose to study and make it a point of pride to step out from the shadows that American society has imposed to keep them hidden.
The Black woman has rightfully cocooned from a hidden figure and emerged as a key player in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Black women are making their path to the forefront, leaving in their path tools for other young women of color to use to enter a field waiting with anticipation for their arrival.