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Black Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)

Feb 10, 2024 12:00PM ● By Gift Joe

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In the ever-evolving landscape of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Black professionals have surely earned their seat at the table. Though still underrepresented in this field, history has shown that the contributions of Black creators have been pivotal and also transformative. They have broken barriers, paving the way for innovation, discovery, and societal progress.

We are in an era where innovation and progress are driven by advancements in STEM. As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to give the Black individuals who have excelled in STEM disciplines and are reshaping the landscape in these fields their flowers. From groundbreaking research and technological innovations to leadership roles and educational initiatives, these Black innovators continue to undertake significant scientific research every day.

Here are some of the notable achievements of Black individuals in STEM that you should know about.

Patricia Bath. Public Domain

Patricia Bath (1942-2019): Was an ophthalmologist who developed laser technology used in treating cataracts.

Otis Boykin and the patent for the electrical resistor. Public Domain

Otis Boykin (1920-1982): Invented the first electrical resistor, a part now used in many common devices, including computers and televisions.

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan. Public Domain

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (1910-2008): Was the first African-American woman to supervise a NASA staff. She was a “human computer” who paved the way for women of color in STEM.

Dr. Marie M. Daly. Public Domain

Dr. Marie M. Daly: Was the first Black woman to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. Some of her contributions to medicine include the discovery of the relationship between high cholesterol and heart disease and conducting pioneering research into the effects of cigarette smoke on the lungs.

Dr. Warren Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Warren Washington: A distinguished climate scientist, he developed one of the first atmospheric computer models of Earth’s climate.

William Warrick Cardozo (1905-1962): Pioneered research on sickle cell anemia and its appearance predominantly in people of African descent.

Gladys West. Public Domain

Gladys West: Is known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth. Also, if you rely on your Global Positioning System (GPS) for directions, you should thank this mathematician. She worked on the processing and analysis of satellite data that helped lead to the development of the GPS.

Daniel Hale Williams. Public Domain

Daniel Hale Williams (1856–1931): Performed the first open-heart surgery on a human in 1893.

 Image: Home security system patent by Marie Van Brittan Brown. Source: Google Patents

Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922- 1999): Contributed to a safer society with her invention of the first home security system. She is also credited with the invention of the first closed-circuit television.

Jerry Lawson. Fair Use

Jerry Lawson: Changed the path of the video game industry by helping create the game cartridge. He is known for his work in designing the Fairchild Channel F video game console as well as leading the team that pioneered the commercial video game cartridge, and earned the nickname of ‘The Father of Modern Gaming.’

Alexander Miles. Public Domain

Alexander Miles (1838-1918): Contributed to the elevator industry and is best known for pushing the innovation of automated elevator doors. He received a patent for it in 1887.

Dr. Mae Jemison. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Mae Jemison: Was the first Black woman astronaut in space. In 1992, she spent more than a week orbiting Earth in the space shuttle Endeavour.

Marian R. Croak. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Marian R. Croak: Is best known for developing Voice Over Internet Protocols (VoIP), technology that converts your voice into a digital signal, allowing you to make a call directly from a computer or other digital device. She has over 130 patents primarily in voice-over Internet protocol.

Lisa Gelobter. Source: The Education Trust

Lisa Gelobter: Is best known for her contributions to the development of the animated graphics interchange format (GIF) – the widely-used file format that allows the creation of short, animated images that are now an integral part of the internet.

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Challenges Faced by Blacks in STEM and Solutions 

While on the surface it may seem like people of color have enjoyed greater access to opportunities in STEM, they still face significant challenges. Some of the challenges include:

Underrepresentation: People of color, particularly Black women, have long been underrepresented in STEM fields. A Pew Research Center Report showed that Black workers make up only 9% of the STEM workforce across all fields.

“Black students earned 9% of the STEM degrees awarded in 2018 across bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, levels unchanged since 2010. Black students earned 5% of master’s and research doctoral degrees in engineering or physical science during the 2017-2018 school year. Black students comprise just 3% to 4% of degree recipients in mathematics at the master’s level and above,” the study showed.

Solution: Implement inclusive recruitment practices that actively seek out and hire Black professionals, ensuring diverse representation within STEM organizations.

Isolation and Imposter Syndrome: One may end up feeling isolated when he or she is one of the few or the only Black person in academic and professional settings. Consistent exposure to stereotyping, discrimination, and microaggressions may lead to Black individuals doubting their abilities and qualifications, and ultimately feeling like they do not belong in the programs in the first place.

Solution: Institutions and other organizations need to create a sense of belonging for Blacks in STEM programs. Other ways include forming support groups, mentorship programs, and networking opportunities where people of color can share their experiences and seek guidance. Also, inclusive workplaces that value diversity will go a long way in addressing issues such as microaggressions and discrimination.

Financial Barriers: Not everyone can afford to pursue a higher education in STEM fields. The financial burden can be challenging for many Black individuals, limiting access to advanced degrees.

Solution: Provide financial support through scholarships, grants, and financial aid programs to reduce barriers for Black students pursuing STEM education.

Lack of Mentors in the Field: The contributions of Black individuals are largely forgotten and unrecognized or credited to white scientists. This deprives aspiring professionals and young Black students of STEM role models.

Solution: Teaching young children about the groundbreaking work of Black scientists will arouse their curiosity to explore topics within STEM. Ensuring that STEM curricula across the country include diverse perspectives, histories, and contributions will provide Black students with role models to look up to; figures who look like them and have likely had similar life experiences.

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