Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Sistas In Science

***The Champ’s latest at Ebony profiles four Black women who happen to be close friends…and all happen to have PhDs in STEM fields. (VSB vets should recognize at least one of them)***

Four Black women. All friends. And, all granted PhDs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields before reaching 30.

What sounds the premise for an urban fairy tale has been the reality for Jessica Porter, 29, Marguerite Matthews, 29, Dahlia Haynes, 31, and Racquel Jemison, 27—a reality made even more unlikely when reading statistics about Black people and STEM PhDs.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black people are 12% of the U.S. population and 11% of all students beyond high school, yet they received just 7% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4% of master’s degrees, and 2% of PhDs. And, out of 5,048 PhDs awarded in the physical sciences, such as chemistry and physics, 89 went to Blacks—a number that gets even smaller when removing Black men.

Yet, Porter (a Boston native and current senior sensory scientist at Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati) met Matthews (who matriculated at Spelman and is currently doing a post-doc at the University of Portland) in 2006 while both enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh’s neuroscience PhD program. In 2010, they met Jemison, a Morgan State grad and doctoral student at nearby Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) who will receive a PhD in chemistry this fall. A couple months later, Jemison introduced them to Haynes, a post-doctoral research associate at CMU who received her PhD in chemistry at Clemson University.

The ladies soon grew close, forming the nexus for a “crew” of grad students and young professionals who migrated to the Pittsburgh-area for work or school.

EBONY.com recently had the opportunity to sit down with them and discuss Black women in science, the importance of early STEM education, and the value of having a strong network of friends.

EBONY: Cases such as the one with Kiera Wilmot reinforce the idea that, from a lack of administrative support to Black students not given the same allowances other students are to experiment, there may be substantial social and institutional barriers preventing Black women from entering and excelling in science-based fields. Do you agree with this assessment?

Dahlia Haynes: This question reads unclear. I am not aware of this case but what allowances are we as Black women not getting? I, for one, have received great institutional support to excel in science based fields. I do believe however that it is because of the (White) people I had around me who were heavily invested in diversity. Socially, unfortunately is that there remains very few of “my people” in the STEM fields. This starts from an early age however. Where I’m from in particular, the only successful careers that were popularly known were the “Huxtables” (medical doctor or lawyer). To overcome this, being scientists has to become socially more acceptable at younger ages.

Marguerite Matthews: I don’t think there are barriers preventing Black students from going into or excelling in the sciences, per se. But I do think there is a lack of support, encouragement, and proper education for many Black students – especially those coming from more disadvantaged economic backgrounds. Similar to Dahlia, I had teachers who pushed me into STEM opportunities, which inspired me to pursue science in higher education and as a career. Exposure to these opportunities, and feeling empowered to thrive in the sciences, has made a world of difference. Unfortunately in the case of Kiera Wilmot, the stereotype that Black kids are thought of as criminals first, not scientists, is being reinforced. This type of experience – being faced with criminal charges – may totally deter her from pursuing science in the future. And while this likely isn’t the case for all Black children, it highlights that society often does not value Black children, even those who are proven to be good students, as future innovators and intellectuals.

Jessica Porter: I do not think that there are barriers preventing Black women from entering or excelling in science based fields any more than there are barriers for White women. Science remains to be a male dominated field so the issues from my experience have had to do more with being a woman than being Black. In addition, as  a Black woman, we check two boxes, which tend to be very important for funding especially at a time when scientific funding is being cut. I don’t want to think that the reason I received funding was because I was Black, but being Black did help. In most science fields, the government or non-profit organizations pay for higher education through grant funding, thus eliminating the barrier and making a scientific education cheaper and easier to pursue.

Racquel Jemison: I think I’m more inclined to agree with Marge.  There isn’t enough support for our young Black students to pursue interests in the sciences.  It’s primarily those few heavily involved teachers or mentors that encourage early exposure to the sciences, and quite frankly, there aren’t enough of them.

Read more at EBONY

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • proud to say that i know all of these women in real life and their credentials pale in comparison to who they are as people. they all are going to do great things. :)

  • Sahel

    These women right here are the holy grail of marriage. Nothing sexier than than an intelligent woman who i can talk to,provide for and know that she knows how to calculate the right angles after dark

  • thanks for the recognition, Champikins!!! while most of friends are very successful and smart in their own right, theres something different and special about those of us who made that PhD sacrifice – struggling and triumphing together no less. don’t know if i would have made it, or had the desire to make it, without such an awesome crew. I LOVE US!!! #PhDeez #googleUS #GOALdiggers #startedfromaBSnowwehere

    • Sahel

      So,ahem, what are your thoughts about lawyers

  • NomadaNare

    Good job ladies. Always good to see attractive black women in science. Lord knows they speak the truth about where there needs to be improvement in academia especially in terms of student support and encouragement, financial and otherwise. Maybe we should get a national black STEM grad/PhD support network going on to enocurage student support post-doc support and innovative business ideas?

  • Crystal

    Nice!!! As an engineering undergrad at Michigan State, it’s always a pleasure seeing other black women doing big things.

  • AfroPetite

    *twerks for the sistas in STEM*

    I salute you ladies! It’s always exciting to see women of color in these fields making great strides.

  • AlexStreet

    Thank you for this. I can show the high school girls I mentor in the Bx that I am in fact NOT the only black female PhD neuroscientist (or black female PhD in general). We need to show our young men and women that this is something that they too can aspire to be. What a gift to have a support system as these women have! We all should be so lucky…That national STEM network is a great idea, BTW…

  • I’m curious: Is Racquel related to Mae Jemison, the highest flying of all STEM sisters?

  • Maya

    Thank you for highlighting their achievements, I will be sure to send this link to my niece who is studying civil engineering

  • Thanks for bring this feature to my attention!! I can’t get enough of young, beautiful black women doin it up in the STEM fields. Great role models and mentors for the generations of tomorrow. Aaaannd I can’t wait to join their ranks….hopefully next year if all goes well *crosses fingers* #PhDeeeezy #ChemEng #2014 #PraisetheLORD

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