Women in STEM fields continue to make history by Julianne Malveaux

3/13/2020, 6 a.m.
Few in these United States had heard of Katherine G. Johnson, the gifted mathematician who finished high school and college ...
Julianne Malveaux

Few in these United States had heard of Katherine G. Johnson, the gifted mathematician who finished high school and college at 18.

How could we know when scientists are often stereotyped as old white men wearing white lab coats, with glasses sliding down their noses?

You might not have known about Mrs. Johnson unless you’d picked up Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race,” or saw the movie by the same name. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Two major NASA facilities are named in her honor. Hopefully, thousands of young black girls who aspire to careers in science are inspired and motivated by her.

Mrs. Johnson graduated from an HBCU at 18. She was mentored by William S. Claytor, reportedly only the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. She and Dr. Claytor may not have crossed paths had segregation not limited Dr. Claytor’s choices. Most African-Americans who earned doctorates taught at HBCUs because others would not hire them, or if they were hired, they were treated differently and often disrespectfully.

If black girls and the rest of us are excited by the legacy of the late Mrs. Johnson, they will be further inspired by a new book by Tonya Bolden. “Changing the Equation: 50+ US Black Women in STEM” highlights black women scientists in an array of fields, including medicine. It is being marketed as a children’s book, but anyone can pick up this book and learn more about the women who forged a career path that few women and even fewer black women have attempted. “Changing the Equation” was meticulously researched and includes a glossary of terms and career descriptions. Not only is it a perfect gift for aspiring scientists, it is also a necessary resource for librarians and science teachers.

Most of the women in this book are not widely known, which makes it all the more valuable.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Davis Crumpler was the first black woman to earn a medical degree. She attended the New England Female Medical College and graduated in 1864. She worked for a time at the Freedmen’s Bureau, the organization charged with addressing the needs of people who were formerly enslaved.

Also in the medical field, Dr. Myra Adele Logan was the first woman and only the ninth person to perform open heart surgery in 1943.

Today, just 2 percent of our nation’s physicians are black women. And despite the need for more medical professionals, that low number has not improved.

In 2016 when Dr. Tamika Cross attempted to assist a patient in distress on a flight, flight attendants asked her if she was “an actual physician.” Two years later in a similar situation, Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford attempted to offer medical assistance on a flight and had several requests for ID.

Ms. Bolden showcases women who have made their mark in history, as well as others who will continue to make history. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973. She is the inventor of call waiting and caller ID. Today she serves as president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. She served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Clinton administration and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Obama.

The women Ms. Bolden highlights include engineers, biologists, robotics specialists and others, amazing women who, while “hidden” from the public eye, make significant contributions in medicine and the other STEM fields.

All too often, Women’s History Month tends to focus on women in the humanities or politics, sending the signal to our young women that the sciences do not deserve attention. “Changing the Equation” reminds us that there are trailblazing women in the sciences that can serve as inspiration and role models for all of us.

The writer is an economist, author and educator.