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