Four Black women. Four close friends. Three---and one soon to be---STEM PhDs

by Damon Young, May 29, 2013


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 Oregon Health & Science University) 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. 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.  Kiera was just an example of early interest with lack of guidance and mentorship.  I’m in no way stating that learning has to be done within the confines of a classroom, but our young Black (and other under-represented minority) students are more likely to be misunderstood and their actions seen as criminal.  On the other hand, once you reach college, the opportunities for Black scientists to excel increase substantially as long as you have the proper connections.  As Jessica mentioned, being Black and female has opened doors that would have been substantially harder otherwise.  Establishing productive networking relationships early on exposes you to a plethora of funding and professional development opportunities.  I can personally attest to this.

EBONY: What in particular motivated you to choose your field? And, as the years passed and you've become more entrenched with your work—and have had more opportunities to apply it—do your initial muses/motivations/reasons still stand true?

DH: My path has been more so chosen for me, I think. I excelled in the sciences particularly chemistry and opportunities were available that led me down this field. I like science and I'm good at it. This still holds true.

MM: My high school chemistry teacher introduced me to a biomedical research opportunity and that one opportunity was the catalyst for the education and career paths I've traveled. In high school liked and was good at science, but I never saw me, a Black girl, as a scientist. The exposure to science outside of the classroom I had at the age of 16 made a huge impression on me. This one opportunity led to numerous others, and I met many other mentors along the way who kept me engaged in science, opened new doors for me, and helped me reach my goals. My experiences have and still do keep me committed to the work I do, and have made it even more important for me to do the same for other kids who are scientists waiting to happen, even if they don't know it. 

JP: My father indirectly motivated me to pursue a career in science. When it came time to choose a major, he told me to choose a major that would allow me to be independent and afford me the same lifestyle I was raised in. I chose biology because that came easiest to me in highschool. I also was under the impression that being a scientist would allow me to have a higher income. Once in undergrad, I found mentors who motivated me to pursue an advanced degree. An advanced degree was suppose to not only increase my pay, but also increase my influence on my work. As I pursued my advanced degree, I realized that I still loved science, I just wasn't a fan of the process. A lot of science is slow and can be socially isolating. I enjoy science, but I’m not sure I would choose this path if given the chance to do it again.

RJ: My interest in chemistry started with high school chemistry teacher.  She pushed us to the edge of our limits to really bring out our potential and made me think that perhaps chemistry wasn’t as impossible as people make it out to be.  Starting college however, where the difficulty increased, my confidence took a hit.  Once again, it was my advisor that pushed me to my limit and helped me to realize that I’m more capable than I sometimes think I am.  As I finish up my PhD degree, I often think about alternative paths that could have led me to a more social position.  I want to be able to use my people skills in combination with my scientific acumen.  And as Jessica mentioned, being in the lab doesn’t always provide that opportunity.

EBONY: What could be done to encourage more Black students to enter STEM programs?

DH: I strongly believe outreach to k-12 students especially in high risk areas can make kids aware of all the opportunities available to them excelling in stem fields. It's interesting to see that when you ask a child what a chemist does their answer tends to be blowing things up. If you ask them to draw a chemist it's usually a pimply face geek w huge lab glasses and an oversized lab coat usually hunchback. These misconceptions need to be changed and science needs to be more attractive. 

MM: I absolutely agree with Dahlia that STEM outreach to Black students from a young age is necessary. It's hard for any kid to aspire to an occupation they may know nothing about. Kids want to emulate what they see. If they're not seeing scientists and engineers – especially those that look like them – they're likely not going to pursue those careers. And we all know it's not just what you know, but who you know. So Black kids need to know STEM professionals and know the resources to tap into to get there. 

JP: Introducing children to STEM at a young age is important. I think what is most important is for young Black students to have Black role models that they can related to. As PhD’s we owe it to our community to teach at schools and volunteer, which we all do. Showing kids real life scientific applications is also a way to get them to be more interested. Once children have hope and see the real life application, they will be even more motivated to stick it out when classes and coursework become hard.

RJ: This is something that we all agree on here.  As PhD scientists, we need to make the effort to do outreach.  I think many first generation Black PhDs that “make it out” are so relieved and quick to enjoy the fruits of their labor, that they don’t think about where the next generation is going to come from.  I didn’t know any scientists growing up.  And once I got to middle and high school, the science influences I had were all teachers, none of whom were Black.  As Dahlia said, if we want to increase the number of under-represented minorities in the sciences, then we need to drive home that doctor and lawyer professions aren’t the only versions of success.  I think on-going mentoring and support speaks volumes to the life of a young forming mind. 

EBONY: For all the talk about administrative and institutional support, having a social safety net is just as (if not more) important. I'm aware that you each met each other while at different stages of your academic/professional career, but how has the formation of your "crew" helped you?

DH: My crew here in Pittsburgh has been amazing. If I had this while in graduate school, I'm quite sure I would have been less miserable. Having people with similar interests and people who understand when other people mix you up with the other Black person is priceless. 

MM: Having a crew that includes other young, brilliant Black women and men in similar fields has been my saving grace since I started graduate school. They say the best friends are ones who made you better and my crew of friends absolutely made each other better. Graduate school is brutal! And it was so awesome to have my fellow ninja scientists (yes, I said ninja scientists) as my support system because they understand first hand what I was going through and how to help me get through it. We aren't friends just because we were all Black, in the sciences, living in the same city, and undercover bougie ratchets – but having these things in common is what brought us together. And my life is better, both personally and professionally, for it.

JP: Having a young advanced degree crew has been a blessing because not only did I have support, I had an outlet. I had people that were just like me going through the same struggle. My crew allowed me to balance a healthy learning environment with fun. Because my friends were of similar backgrounds, I never felt like an outcast because I was  pursuing an advanced degree. Sometimes pursing an advanced degree can be isolating because so few of us are doing it that the rest of our community doesn’t want to mix with us. The only downside to having such an advanced crew is that having a PhD no longer feels that amazing or important. When all of your friends have either a law degree, PhD (science), or MD it no longer seems like a big deal. It seems normal. Because it just seems normal, sometimes I fail to see my own value.

RJ: I’ll be the first to say that I NEVER expected to build a support network like I have now.  Our crew is an anomaly to the utmost, and I cherish it deeply.  Not having to explain the whole “No, I don’t have spring or summer break” issue, the “no, I’m the other Black girl” issue, among other Black science grad student grievances is something I don’t take for granted.  I’ve been spoiled.  I went to a racially diverse high school, an HBCU for undergrad, and the ONE graduate research group with a critical mass population of Black grad students/post-docs (a whopping number of three).  If there is any downside to this, it will be that my first job is likely going to be huge adjustment for me. 

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