7 Black STEM Professors
Recently, one of my cousins sent me a lovely post highlighting 10 Black Women in Academia. Since I haven’t written in a while, I thought I would take this opportunity to create my own list of Black STEM Professors for Black History Month… And let’s be honest, what engineer doesn’t like a list?!
In listening to women or students from underrepresented groups, one of the reoccurring themes that I’ve heard is the importance of being encouraged and having support from those around you. In creating my list, I tried to think of professors that I have personally chatted with — either to talk about their research or their work to make the next STEM generation more inclusive and diverse.
Many STEM departments have very low numbers of female professors, and even fewer professors of color, giving another subtle message for students in these groups. As I’ve progressed through my education and started my career, I’ve continued to meet amazing folks of all backgrounds that are making a significant impact on their professional community. Fortunately, this list is nowhere near an ‘all inclusive’ list of black STEM professors working tirelessly in research and outreach.
The first one on my list is from my alma mater. I received my Bachelors degree at UMD (Go Terps!) in Aerospace Engineering. Pines graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley and went on to receive his PhD at MIT. When I was a student at Maryland, Pines was researching smart sensors for uninhabited aerospace vehicles, which is important for sending vehicles far out into space. As the Dean of Engineering his work also includes working with the American Society of Engineering Education to promote STEM education in K-12 programs.
As a student, I did not really interact with Pines directly, but I did benefit from some of the many resources at UMD — I was a member of SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; full disclosure - I’m not Hispanic, but they welcomed me anyway!). SHPE provided me with a study group and made me feel like I belonged in what initially felt like a foreign land.
Amos is a pioneer in her own right — she broke a glass ceiling as the first black student to receive a PhD in Chemical Engineering from UC Berkeley in 1996 (yes… only 20 years ago). Before becoming a professor, Amos worked for the Research & Development department of Kodak during its heyday. Having experience in both industry and academia provides a unique and valuable perspective of how materials discovered in the laboratory work their way into products that we buy today. Now, her research focuses materials to improve energy efficiency, a topic becoming ever more important each year.
The second dean of engineering on my list has a long track record of being a leader in her career and helping those that will come after her. Barabino is not only thinking about the students at CUNY, but other faculty of color across the United States. Successfully obtaining a job in academia is half the battle — the other half is keeping that job through the tenure process! Noticing a lack of mentorship for women and faculty of color, Barabino started the National Institutes for Faculty Equity (NIFE) in 2004. NIFE’s primary activity in an annual NSF-supported workshop for engineering professors of color to discuss career development, network, and receive support from other colleagues outside of their institution.
Barabino was the first African American engineering graduate student admitted to Rice University in 1981, and the first African American female dean of engineering. There are now four African American female deans in the country — Robin Coger at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Stephanie Adams at Old Dominian, and Joyce Shirazi at Hampton. Needless to say, Barabino is quite familiar with the challenges involved with breaking stereotypes. In fact, I can let Barabino speak for herself about her experiences as a woman of color in STEM (check out her interview on YouTube).
I had an opportunity to meet Williams at a research conference, which is essentially a science fair for adults. Williams research focuses on biomechanics of biological tissues ranging from the lung to the brain. In the field of biomechanics, researchers try to understand how tissues respond to forces and how injury or age changes the tissue’s response to these forces. Williams has been recognized both for her research as well as her outreach work in making college a more inclusive environment for minorities.
The only non-engineer on my list is a mathematician from Philadelphia. I included Berhanu on this list because of his outreach work locally in Philadelphia, as well as globally. Berhanu spends his summers returning to his mother country of Ethiopia to teach college students at Addis Ababa University, where he helped start a doctoral program. He recently received funding from the Simons Foundation and the International Science Program of Sweden to continue growing the program.
Ochia’s research focused on how age and degeneration alters the mechanical response of the soft tissues in the spine. Lower back pain will impact ~80% of Americans at some point in their life, and it is the 2nd leading cause for physical disability. Ochia’s more recent work has focused primarily on engineering education and making engineering a more inclusive career choice for students.
Last, but not least, is actually my aunt. All of my Ethiopian aunts and uncles came to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s to receive a college education. Many of them went into STEM related fields, including architecture, computer programming, physics, and chemistry, so it’s no surprise that I love everything about science and engineering. Ferede’s research focuses on crop chemistry - specifically yams, but she also advises student groups that have done quite well at their respective competitions.
I added this one at the end, because May has done a lot at Georgia Tech with regards to increasing student diversity at all levels (undergraduate and graduate student populations). However, it seemed like cheating to add him to the list here, since I’ve already written a separate blog post about May’s outreach work.
So why isn’t the list longer? Well, because I must get back to writing my grant, of course! Till next time.
Correction - The article has been corrected to reflect that there are actually 4 African American female engineering deans in the United States. The previous version stated two female deans, but Stephanie Adams and Joyce Shirazi were both promoted to dean in 2016.