Meet 7 Black Women Who Broke the Glass Ceiling and the Color Line in STEAM Careers
Traditionally, white males have advanced in careers focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math also referred to as STEM in K-12 education. As of late, there has been a heightened interest in STEM programs in schools. After the inception of the maker movement, where some schools have included Makerspaces, the program has been expanded to include the arts as well. An ‘A’ has been added in STEM and is now called STEAM as educators search for ways to make science fun, engaging, and hands-on while also encouraging students to imagine, explore, tinker, and experiment following the scientific method of research, inquiry, and project-based learning. At the elementary and middle school levels students may learn how to create circuit breakers, lighted greeting cards, and cardboard representations of automobiles, buildings, or even roller coasters. At the high school level, students may learn how to create robots as well as various items using 3-D printers, and learn how to code.
When I was in school, not only did STEAM programs not exist, there also was no culturally-responsive pedagogy that placed Black girls at the center of learning where they could see themselves as scientists, engineers, architects, or mathematicians. It wasn’t until 1987 that Mae C. Jemison had joined the National Aeronautics Space Administration’s (NASA) astronaut corps and in 1992 she orbited the earth for nearly eight days. Once I entered the education workforce in 2000, posters of Jemison wearing her orange, NASA astronaut suit holding her space helmet graced almost every classroom, library, and hallway. She had carved out a lane of her own by becoming the first Black woman to travel into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The image is powerful and is etched forever in my mind. It may also be responsible for sending subliminal messages to the next generation of Black girls who ever wondered if they could become scientists or astronauts.
Fast forward 25 years after Jemison’s success to the year 2017, the biographical drama Hidden Figures informs us about three Black women mathematicians who had worked at NASA in the 1950’s; Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Why had we never seen these images before? We only saw images of Black women working in a domestic capacity in the workforce, washing clothes or cleaning other people’s houses. However, these trailblazing scientists were the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into space. Not only did this capture the attention of Americans and the entire world but it also changed the space race game and catapulted America to the forefront.
If it weren’t for Hollywood making this movie, these women would have never become household names. This makes us wonder how many other Black women have excelled in STEAM-related careers that are not taught in schools or showcased in the mainstream media.
Here are a few:
1 - DR. PATRICIA BATH
Meet Dr. Patricia Bath, (Nov. 4, 1942 – May 30, 2019) a pioneering ophthalmologist who is the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent for her groundbreaking discovery for treating cataracts with more precisions. This Harlem-born New Yorker completed high school in two and a half years and graduated from Hunter College in 1964 where she studied physics and chemistry. She then graduated from Howard University medical school in 1968.
In 1973, Dr. Bath became the first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Through her studies, she discovered that Black people were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than other patients, and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. Her research led her to develop a community ophthalmology system, which increased the amount of eye care given to those who were unable to afford treatment.
She moved to California the following year to work as an assistant professor of surgery at Charles R. Drew University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1975, she became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute.
In 1981, Dr. Bath began working on her most well-known invention: the Laserphaco Probe which she completed in 1986. The device created a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts by using laser technology. She received a patent for the device in 1988, thereby becoming the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose; she also holds patents in Japan, Canada and Europe. With her Laserphaco Probe, Dr. Bath was able to help restore the sight of people who had been blind for more than 30 years.
2 - DR. HADIYAH-NICOLE GREEN
Meet Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green, a medical physicist known for the development of a method using laser-activated nanoparticles to treat cancer. In her pursuit to fight cancer, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in physics and optics from Alabama A&M University and later earned her master’s degree in physics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, both of which she received full scholarships. She then went on to work at the Comprehensive Cancer Center for five years.
In her research, she discovered a revolutionary way to cure cancer using nanoparticle technology as opposed to chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Dr. Green Received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to expand her nanoparticle cancer treatment research.
Dr. Green is currently conducting her research at the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation, a nonprofit she founded in memory of her aunt. She is continuing to fight cancer using laser-activated nanoparticles and focusing on its mission to make cancer treatment accessible, affordable, and effective for all Americans. In her spare time, she helps young Black students to further cultivate interest in STEAM-related careers.
3 - DR. MAY EDWARD CHINN
Meet Dr. May Edward Chinn (April 15, 1896 - December 1, 1980) born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1896 and raised in New York City. She became the first Black woman to graduate from New York’s Bellevue Hospital Medical College. Her father, William Lafayette Chinn, was enslaved in Virginia on the Cheyne (Chinn) plantation, and her mother, Lulu Ann Evans, was a Native American from the Chickahominy Indian reservation near Norfolk, Virginia. She was also the first Black woman to intern at Harlem Hospital where she went on to practice medicine in Harlem for 50 years. She became an avid supporter of new methods to detect cancer in its earliest stages. In the early 1930s, Dr. Chinn studied cytological methods for cancer detection with George Papanicolaou, the creator of the Pap smear test for cervical cancer.
When Dr. Chin entered Columbia University Teachers College in 1917, she was planning to major in music. For several years, she was a piano accompanist to singer Paul Robeson. It was until after she had written a paper for a hygiene course during her first year in college she impressed her instructor, Dr. Jean Broadhurst, so much that she encouraged Dr. Chin to consider a major in science. In her autobiography, Dr. Chinn says, one of her teachers told her "because I was of African descent, that unless I could afford to go to Europe for final 'polishing' in my music, I would probably end up singing in a cabaret in America. If I chose science, my chances were better for a good future."
In the mid 1920s, Black physicians were not granted admitting privileges or special residencies at any hospitals, so after graduating from Bellevue Hospital Medical College and completing an internship at Harlem Hospital in 1928, Chinn opened a private practice along with other Black physicians at the Edgecombe Sanitarium. She saw most of her patients in her office or in their own homes.
In 1944, Dr. Chinn was invited by Dr. Elise Strang L'Esperance, founder of the Strang Cancer Clinic at Memorial Hospital, to take a position in the Tuesday afternoon cancer clinic. The following year L'Esperance hired her permanently and she stayed with the clinic until her retirement in 1974. While there, Dr. Chinn promoted cancer screening methods for non-symptomatic patients, routine Pap smears, and the use of family medical histories to predict cancer risk.
In 1954, Dr. May Edward Chinn became a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, and in 1957 she received a citation from the New York City Cancer Committee of the American Cancer Society. In 1980, Columbia University awarded her an honorary doctorate of science for her contributions to medicine.
4 - DR. MARIE MAYNARD DALY
Meet Dr. Marie Maynard Daly (April 16, 1921 – October 28, 2003), born in Queens, NY, was a pioneering biochemist who became the first Black woman in the U. S. to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. She credited her mother with instilling a love of science and fascination with the inner workings of the human body. She graduated with honors from Queens College in 1942, went on to earn a graduate degree from NYU along with a master’s and doctorate degree from Columbia University. She landed a grant from the American Cancer Society in 1948, which led to a seven-year study on how the body constructs proteins. In the mid-1950’s, Daly returned to Columbia where she studied the cause of heart attacks, and outlined the connection between diet and heart health. As a professor of biochemistry, she encouraged students of color to pursue higher education in STEM fields, and she founded her own Scholarship at Queens College in 1988.
5 - DR. PATRICIA S. COWINGS
Meet Dr. Patricia S. Cowings (December 15, 1948), born in the Bronx, NY, is an aerospace psychophysiologist and inventor. She studied the physiological effects that being in outer space has on the human body and she helped astronauts adapt to space. She graduated from the University at California, Davis (UC Davis) and was the first woman to be trained as a NASA scientist astronaut. In 1997, she invented the Autogenic Feedback Training systems and methods, which can be used to help humans voluntarily control 24 bodily reactions including breathing, heart rate, and sweating. She currently works as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the Human Systems Integration Division.
6 - DR. LATANYA SWEENEY
Meet Dr. Latanya Sweeney, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which she eanred in 2001. Before joining Harvard as a faculty member, Sweeney was the Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, where she taught computer science, technology and policy from 1998 to 2011. Today, she is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Technology Science and the founding Director of the Technology Science Initiative.
Dr. Sweeney is a pioneer in the field of data privacy. She creates and uses technology to assess and solve societal, political and governance problems, and teaches others how to do so. Her work is cited in the HIPAA Privacy Rule and other federal privacy regulations worldwide. Her work on discrimination in online ads ignited the new research area known as algorithmic fairness. She is an elected fellow of the American College of Medical Informatics, with more than 100 academic publications, three patents, 7000 academic citations, and three company spin-offs. She has received numerous professional, academic and lifetime achievement awards and testified before federal and international government bodies. Among other federal appointments, Dr. Sweeney formerly served as the Chief Technology Officer at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
7 - DR. JEWEL PLUMMER COBB
Meet Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb (January, 17 1924-2017) a ground-breaking researcher, university administrator, and professor emeritus. She subsequently contributed to cancer research by researching a cure for melanoma. Dr. Cobb was born in Chicago where she attended public schools. While in school, she was at first interested in becoming a physical education teacher like her mother and aunt. However, she found that she was interested in biology when, in her sophomore year in high school, she studied cells through a microscope.
Dr. Cobb is the third generation in her family tree to pursue a career in science. Her grandfather, a freed slave, graduated from Howard University in 1898 and became a pharmacist. Her father, Frank V. Plummer, became a physician after he graduated from Cornell University, where he helped found the Black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, later joined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Cobb earned a Bachelor of Science from Talladega College in 1944 and a Master of Science from New York University in 1947. In 1950, she was awarded a Ph.D. in cell physiology from New York University. During her career, she served as a researcher, a college professor and administrator, as well as a staunch supporter for Black people to pursue careers in science. In 1954, Dr. Jewel Plummer married Roy Cobb, an insurance salesman, they had one son. Today, their son, Dr. Jonathan Cobb, is a medical doctor.
Much of Cobb's research was focused on the skin pigment melanin, and her most significant research has been with testing new chemotherapeutic drugs in cancer cells. She has held several teaching and administrative positions at major universities where she was often the only Black person in the room. From 1960 to 1969, she was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine in 1974. From 1969 to 1976 she served as Dean and Professor of Zoology at Connecticut College. Dr. Cobb served as the president of California State University in Fullerton (1981–1990).
Dr. Cobb was an advocate for increasing the representation of women and students of color in universities, and she created programs to support students interested in pursuing graduate school.She resided in Maplewood, New Jersey, until her death on January 1, 2017 at the age of 92.
In conclusion, the record shows that Black women can become scientists, engineers, architects, and mathematicians with the proper guidance and direction. They need to be provided opportunities to engage in the scientific method of research, as well as inquiry, and project-based learning. Education policy makers and reformers must mandate STEAM programs in every school in America with a focus on culturally-responsive pedagogy that is grounded in a student-centered approach to teaching and learning.
Dr. Silvia M. Lloyd is CEO of SL Public Relations and Co-Founder at Edusite Scholars. She is an author and specializes in COVID-19 Crisis Management. Speaker, program developer, curriculum writer who specializes in researching and writing on the Black experience.
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