Science, technology, engineering, and math are fields booming with opportunity. They are also fields that lack representation when it comes to minorities and women. Here, six Black girls share what it’s like to rock the S.T.E.M. world and break down barriers.
Most moments of clarity seemingly come out of nowhere, when you least expect them — in the shower, on a walk, or even during a long car ride. For University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) senior, Amber Turner, her moment of clarity came during her sophomore year of college after pulling an eight-hour shift at McDonald’s.
She’d managed to drag herself to her economics class, where she passed out from lack of sleep and boredom. That’s when she knew she had to figure something else out because, for her, majoring in international business just wasn’t, well, the business.
“I was making minimum wage, and I was working 40 hours per week, but I needed to work that job to pay off some of my tuition,” Amber says. “There were times when I would be up for two or three days straight because I didn’t have enough time between work, class, and studying.”
Upset with herself for wasting so much time in a major she didn’t see herself in, Amber decided to follow in her brother’s footsteps and enlist in the Army Reserve as a back-up plan. “I was super-resistant to join the Army, but I was trying to pay tuition, and I hated my classes,” she shares. But while away at training, Amber had some time to reflect on the environmental science electives she took as a business major, and had one of those metaphorical “lightbulb moments”: She loved taking those classes.
“I always wanted to be a scientist, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” she says, remembering the excitement she felt as a kid. “My parents would get me these kits to grow my own habitats. In school, I was always a part of different clubs that involved science. It was always my niche.”
In between childhood and college, though, Amber began to second-guess herself, wondering if she really had what it took to be a scientist. At the time, international business seemed a more solid choice. “I was just pursuing business because I was thinking about what the best degree would be to lead me into the work force.”
Not wanting to continue spending coins on a degree she really wasn’t feeling, Amber decided that when she returned to school post-training, she would switch her major to environmental science. Later, at the encouragement of her mentor, she switched again to geology.
The drive to do what others haven’t done before is what attracts Amber to her field of study. Her goal? To be an experimental petrologist and stay in the high-pressure, high-temperature world because she loves learning about meteorites and their impact. Although she admits this field is “kind of lonely” — as far as she knows, she’s the only Black woman in high-pressure, high-temperature science — it can also be super rewarding.
“I kind of stumbled into it,” Amber says. “I was fascinated by the fact that scientists … are the innovators of our species. They are the people who answer all the questions that need to be answered and move us forward. I love the idea of discovering, exploring, and innovating, and contributing something to our world.”
She’s well on her way, too, having recently completed a highly coveted internship with NASA as a high-pressure experimental petrology intern, where she studied minerals found on various planets.
“I would like to see more Black women have faith in themselves that they are intelligent enough to pursue this,” she says. “We can do this, and people genuinely want to know how we can contribute to science.”
Read on for the stories behind five other Black girls killin’ it in the S.T.E.M. space.
Temi & Sasha
As a kid, Temi Ibitoye, a junior chemical engineering major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), had one career goal: to be the first Black woman president. By the end of her freshman year of high school, though, she’d fallen hard for something else — math. “I realized that I was taking classes like trigonometry, and I was like, ‘I get this!’” Temi says.
Then, one summer after visiting her older sister, who also went to UMBC, Temi learned about the Meyerhoff Scholars Program — a program meant to get minority students into graduate programs in S.T.E.M. — and knew she had to be a part of it. “I love my program [because] I see so many Black people in S.T.E.M. succeed, which is why I know it’s possible for me,” she says.
Her chosen track of study within chemical engineering focuses on the environment, so she studies air pollution, light sources, energy, and water quality (her favorite). “I like the research that I’m doing,” she says. “I focus on antibiotics that end up in different sources of water and how that affects antibiotic resistance in the body. As I’ve been progressing throughout my major, I’ve been learning so much that helps within my lab. My favorite thing is applying it to actual work that I like to do.”
On her campus, Temi is one of few Black girls in her department, and one of the few people pursuing water quality research, period. “We need more diversity in S.T.E.M.,” she says. “One of the things that jobs in engineering stress is being able to work together and bring different minds and thoughts together. When you bring diversity in the room and have them collaborate on one thing, you get so many different ideas and products as a result.”
While Temi hadn’t had much exposure to the field until delving right into it in college, Sasha Alston, an information systems junior at Pace University in New York City, began her love affair with S.T.E.M. in high school.
It all began at McKinley Technical High School in Washington, D.C., a S.T.E.M.-focused school where Sasha had the opportunity to focus on the technology course of study, ultimately leading up to an internship with Microsoft in 11th grade. During her internship, Sasha got to be a marketing manager for a team, and her team created gaming apps. Through this real-world experience, her interest in tech blossomed. And while she didn’t know it at the time, an event during her senior year of high school would propel her to become an advocate for Black girls in S.T.E.M.
“I had a radio interview where the host was asking me what coding is,” she says. “It made me realize that a lot of people may not know what coding is. I was talking it over with my mom, and she gave me the idea to write a children’s book, because she’s an author, to explain to kids what it is [so they can] see themselves in the field.”
After about two years of writing, editing, more writing, and more editing, Sasha sent the book to agents in hopes of getting published. Unfortunately, nothing but rejections followed. “It was hard getting the rejections because I thought it was a really good book. It’s something not a lot of people know about or are focused on, so I thought it would be a good way to help bring diversity to S.T.E.M.,” she shares. “[The publishers] were saying that there wasn’t a market for it. I felt like if there wasn’t a market, then you can start one. I was feeling down about it and thinking that my book wasn’t good enough, or that I shouldn’t publish it. My mom was like, ‘No, this needs to be out there.’”
But publishing is expensive, and if no company would take her book seriously, how was she going to get that bank?
“[My mom] suggested that I do crowdfunding, so that’s how we came up with Kickstarter,” Sasha says. “I launched the Kickstarter in January. My goal was $5,000, and I reached that goal in four days.” By the end of the campaign, she had raised more than $17,000!
The book, Sasha Savvy Loves to Code, was released in June, and through the story of a 10-year-old Black girl and her BFFs, shows how S.T.E.M. can be applied in real life. It also encourages diversity in the field.
“There’s very few women, which means there’s even less African-American women. I feel like more women role models are needed in this field, so that we can pursue it as well,” Sasha says. “If people can see themselves in something, then they’ll want to pursue it.”
Maurisa & Carla
“I’ve been told that I should’ve been a housewife,” says Maurisa Morris, a 24-year-old engineer at Underwriters Laboratories in Melville, New York, where she conducts safety tests for things like cell phone batteries, refrigerators, toasters, and other electronic devices. “I got that comment from a professor, actually. It made me upset, but then it made me want to prove him wrong, and I did prove him wrong.”
A 2015 graduate of Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Maurisa studied electrical engineering and was typically the only Black girl in her classes. She felt pressure to prove that Black people, more specifically Black women, could handle these courses. “I felt like I had to represent the whole African diaspora, which was weird,” she says. “When I did bad on a test, I felt like I was doing bad for all of us, instead of just me. I felt a little bit of pressure, but at the end of the day, it just proves that … girls can do math and that Black people can do math. It sounds silly, but it’s really a thing where people think that we can’t.”
Even her mother initially felt electrical engineering was for boys. “She thought I was going to be an electrician, so I had to explain to her what I was going to do,” Maurisa says. “After I explained it to her, she thought it was cool.”
Ironically, it was also her mom who got Maurisa interested in S.T.E.M. in the first place. “When I was in seventh grade, my mom made me go to engineering and science classes over the summer called F.A.M.E. (Forms to Advance Minorities in Engineering) in Delaware,” she says. “Through that camp, we did a lot of science projects and engineering projects. That’s what I did every summer, engineering and math. By the time I graduated high school, I thought that was what I wanted to do.”
When she first applied to Hofstra, though, Maurisa planned to major in psychology and pre-law because she felt that would please her parents. Right before classes began, she notified the school that she’d like to change her major to electrical engineering, and she never looked back.
“I can do anything I put my mind to, so I try not to let those stereotypes that people try to put me in define my work as an engineer,” she says. “The beautiful thing about engineering is that the work speaks for itself.”
A self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl,” Carla Puig learned to enjoy car races and put together motorcycle pieces from her father. In middle and high school, she also got involved with robotics, and from there, her love of engineering solidified.
“I wouldn’t say [my dad’s] the main reason [I studied engineering], but he opened my mind to this curiosity of how to make things possible or know how things work,” Carla says. “He and my grandpa were the ones who put me in hands-on activities, so I could explore that side.”
And explore it she did — all the way to the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagϋez, where she recently earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Now, she works as a studio design engineer for General Motors in Warren, Michigan, where she acts as the intermediary between the mechanical engineers and the car sculptors. Basically, she is hands-on when it comes to the designing of cars.
“When I grew up, I was interested in art, also. I liked drawing, thinking about how to draw pictures and how to make things possible,” Carla says. “I love that I’m in between these two fields. My passion is art, and my other passion is science. I love figuring things out and being in the middle and seeing all the cool stuff and trying to make it happen.”
Still, just as Black girls are forced to cope with and fight against stereotypes on the regular, being a Black girl in S.T.E.M. has similar challenges. One particular stereotype that Carla won’t stand for is that people of color aren’t smart enough to pursue such careers. “That would be really false,” she says. “We’re as smart as any other race, and sometimes, we have to do more to get where other people are.”
It’s a balancing act, she agrees. You must prove people wrong, but also earn your spot.
“Usually, being a woman, you’re not expected to do as good as you’re able to,” she says. “There might be situations where people are like, ‘You’re a girl, and you don’t know about this. You don’t know what car parts go here.’”
Fortunately, Carla doesn’t let what others may think about her keep her from doing what she loves. She’s also used to being the only Afro-Latina girl in her group; it’s completely normal for her. And as for the boys, she treats them as equals in hopes that they’ll do the same, improving the male-female dynamic in S.T.E.M.
“If we think positively that it will get better, we will attract the younger generation to think more positively about it — not only girls, but boys too — that it’s not about gender, but it’s about who wants to strive more.”
Forward Thinking: The Future of Black Girls in S.T.E.M.
With movies such as Hidden Figures and women like Jessica Watkins (the only Black woman in NASA’s 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class) and Kára McCullough (a chemist and the current Miss USA) making headlines, the barriers are being broken.
Holly Alexander, a master’s student studying biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is helping to tear down those barriers, too. At first, Holly dreamed of becoming a professional figure skater, but the incessant feet and knee injuries that kept her in and out of doctors’ offices and from pursuing her passion, also sparked her interested in a new love: the human body.
“Because of the way things ended with skating, and I had so many injuries, I was never able to get a clear answer as to what was wrong with me,” Holly says. “There wasn’t a clear diagnosis as to what happened. I think that inspired me to pursue a career where I would be able to help people in a similar situation.”
After finishing her degree, Holly hopes to pursue orthopedic research and possibly a Ph.D. “I think research is so interesting because the point of it is to figure out what you don’t know,” she says. “The thing I like most about science is the discovery aspect about it. We’re never going to know everything; it’s never going to die or be completed. There’s always going to be more.”
This article originally appeared in Sesi’s Fall 2017 issue. Subscribe here to get the current issue, on sale now.