STEM Like Me Stories recognize diverse scholars in STEM fields that look like students in today’s classrooms. We continuously add new stories of STEM professionals to highlight the great people practicing science and engineering. If you have an idea of someone you think the STEM Center could feature, please contact us.
Anthropologists Like Me
Jane Goodall – Jane Goodall is a Primatologist and Anthropologist studying Chimpanzee’s for over 55 years. Through her work in Africa, where she lived with Chimpanzee’s, Jane helped change our understanding about our closest relation in the animal kingdom. She discovered that chimpanzees make and use tools, hunt and eat meat, wage war, have strong bonds, and show acts of compassion. These discoveries have shown how similar chimpanzees are to humans. Jane Goodall is also an environmental conversation activist, a member of the United Nations, and an honorary member of the World Future Council.
Elliott Skinner – Elliott Skinner was an anthropologist who started his academic career later in life. Originally from Trinidad, Skinner immigrated to the United States during World War II and enlisted in the army. After the war ended, Skinner was granted American citizenship and enrolled in New York University. He continued his education at Columbia University, where he obtained his master’s and doctorate degrees in anthropology. During his schooling, Skinner’s research focused on ethnic interactions in British Guiana; however, his research focus later switched to West Africa. He moved to Burkina Faso to work; learned More, the common language; and later he was nominated as the U.S. Ambassador to the Upper Volta region by President Lyndon Johnson. This was a unique appointment, because Skinner was only the 11th Black American named as a U.S. Ambassador and also the only ambassador who conducted research in a country prior to appointment.
Skinner’s other work includes teaching African ethnology at New York University and Columbia University. He was also the first Black American to chair an Anthropology Department in the United States, when he was appointed chair at Columbia University. While he taught, Skinner continued to research the people of Upper Volta and published multiple books on the region. He also published books on how Africa has influenced U.S. foreign policy.
Biologists Like Me
John James Audubon – World Migratory Bird day was Saturday, May 11. To celebrate the research of great ornithologists (scientists who study birds), the STEM Center is featuring John James Audubon as this week’s STEM Like Me scientist. Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter who was the first to document 25 species of birds. One of his greatest works is the color-plate book The Birds of America, which is considered to be one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. In his early life, Audubon was born in Haiti but soon thereafter moved to France where he lived until his father sent him to the United States to escape a war. Once in the United States, Audubon wanted to study and illustrate American birds in a more realistic manner than many other artists. He set ambitious goals of finding and painting all the birds of North America and to surpass the earlier ornithological work of Alexander Wilson.
He also began the first known bird-banding on the continent. He tied pieces of yarn to the legs of eastern phoebes, discovering that individuals of this species returned to the same nesting spots year after year. His study of birds included drawings and paintings, but he also systematically recorded the behaviors of the birds he illustrated. When working on The Birds of America, Audubon attempted to paint one page each day. He also re-painted earlier works as he learned new techniques in his painting. Audubon sought to publish his work in the United States, but North American publishers rebuffed his work. This led him to travel to England with over 300 drawings. His work of American wildlife was well-received in England, and he raised enough money to publish The Birds of America. This work consists of 435 hand-colored, life size prints of 497 bird species that are made from engraved copper plates. After publication of The Birds of America, Audubon came back to America and wrote a follow-up manuscript, Ornithological Biographies. This book is a collection of life histories for each species in The Birds of America.
Audubon inspired nearly all later ornithological works with his artistry and high standards. His book, The Birds of America, is still considered one of the greatest examples of naturalist book art. Today, The Birds of America is one of the world’s most expensive books, and one edition recently sold at auction for over $11 million. In Audubon, Pennsylvania, there is a museum open to the public that presents all of his major works. Henderson, Kentucky hosts the Audubon Museum at John James Audubon State Park where many of his original watercolors, engravings, and personal memorabilia are held. Audubon also had the National Audubon Society named in his honor, with the mission “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds”. He has many other parks, towns, and more named in his honor.
Rachel Carson – In recognition of World Environmental Day and World Oceans Day this week, on June 5 and June 8 respectively, we are honoring Rachel Carson as this week’s STEM Like Me. Rachel Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women from 1925-1929, where she originally studied English before switching her major to biology. She then spent the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory before attending John Hopkins in 1929 to study zoology and genetics. After receiving her master’s degree in zoology, Carson had to leave school instead of continuing for her doctorate to help support her family during the Great Depression. She began to work temporarily for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, where she wrote for a series of educational broadcasts, Romance Under the Waters. In 1936, Carson became the second woman to become a full-time employee of the Bureau of Fisheries as a junior aquatic biologist. Carson’s work led to her writing for many newspapers and journals, and she wrote many books throughout her career as well. The publication of The Sea Around Us, a life history of the ocean, earned Carson two honorary doctorates. After the publication of this book, she left the Bureau of Fisheries, now known as the Bureau of Fish and Wildlife Service, to pursue research and writing.
One of her other great accomplishments include the publication of Silent Spring, a warning about dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and other pesticides. Her book heavily influenced governments to ban or restrict the use of DDT and similar pesticides and chemicals. The publication of this work is also helped launch the environmental movement. Carson passed away in 1964 after fighting breast cancer. Posthumously, Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Ernest Everett Just – Ernest Everett Just was an African-American biologist who studied marine biology, cytology, and parthenogenesis. Just advocated that we should study the whole cell under normal conditions, rather than breaking apart the cell in a laboratory. He spent the majority of his career at Howard University; however, he always sought out positions at other school’s so he could focus more on his research. He had a difficult time finding these positions, so he often went to Europe to conduct research, where he was better accepted. In 1940, Just was working in France and did not leave at the government’s request. After Germany invaded France, Just was help as a prisoner-of-war while he was ill. He was rescued and diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but died shortly after his diagnosis.
Danielle N. Lee is a behavioral biologist at SIUE. She obtained her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Missouri – St. Louis in 2010 and her research focuses on how ecology and evolutionary components contribute to the behavior of animals. One of Lee’s research projects involves exploring the African giant pouch rat’s behaviors. Through this research, Lee hopes to discover if there are differences between the behaviors the giant pouch rat exhibits as well as if there is a genetic component to these differences in behavior. She is currently expanding this research to examine small rodents in the St. Louis Metropolitan area and their behavioral differences.
Lee is also passionate about STEM outreach and sharing science to general audiences, especially under-served groups. She typically does this with outdoor programming and social media. From 2011-2016, Lee wrote The Urban Scientist blog; where she wrote about her experiences as a researcher, issues of diversity in STEM, and urban ecology. Lee now primarily uses Twitter to share her science and outreach, and Huffington Post recognized her as a top scientist to follow. Lee has been awarded many times for her efforts to encourage minorities to join STEM; including being named a TED Fellow in 2015, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2017, and a Plenary Speaker at the annual British Ecological Society meeting in 2018. On April 19, 2019, Lee gave a Ted Talk on how hip-hop helps us understand science.
Daniel Pauly – Daniel Pauly is a French-born marine biologist known for his work in studying human impacts on global fisheries. Pauly grew up in Switzerland as a live-in servant until he ran away when he was 16 to put himself through school. His work at his high school and working with disabled people for a local institution led to receive a scholarship to the University of Kiel in Germany. While Pauly was at the University of Kiel he decided to study fisheries biology and stayed at Kiel University to complete his bachelor, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees. Pauly completed his degrees under the advisement of Gotthilf Hempel and studied the ecology of a small West African lagoon to establish relationships between the surface area of gills and the growth of fishes and aquatic (gill-breathing) invertebrates.
Pauly wanted to work in the tropics while devoting his life to applying his research so he could fishers, so he moved to the Philippines to work at the International Center for Living and Aquatic Resources Management. He stayed here for 15 years when he worked in the tropics and developed new techniques for estimating fish populations. Pauly helped create FishBase, which is an online encyclopedia comprised of information and data for over 30,000 different fish species.
Another prominent area of Pauly’s work has been his examination of the effects of overfishing. In 1995, he developed the concept of shifting baselines and authored the seminal paper, “Fishing Down Marine Food Webs” in 1998. In 2003 he was labeled as an “iconoclaust” by the New York Times and earned a place in the “Scientific American 50”. Throughout his career he’s won various other prizes, medals, and awards for his work. To date, Pauly has written multiple books and over 500 scientific papers.
Botanists Like Me
George Washington Carver – George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who actively promoted the use of crop rotation. Carver was born a slave and overcame many life challenges to pursue a career in science. He left his family to continue his education at various schools and applied to several colleges before being accepted. Once he arrived at that college, he was denied entrance due to his race. This led him to move and homestead a claim in Kansas, where he maintained a small plot of plants and flower. He also grew and harvested rice, corn, and garden produce, as well as fruit trees and forest trees. Finally, he was accepted into Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he studied art and piano but was encouraged to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College.
After obtaining a degree from Iowa State and working there, Carver was hired to work at the Tuskegee Institute. While there, Carver became passionate about improving the quality of life for poor farmers, so he worked to develop techniques to improve soil quality and encouraged poor farmers to grow alternative crops besides cotton. By growing foods like peanuts and sweet potatoes, these farmers could grow more foods for themselves. Carver even created bulletins for farmers, one of which contained 105 food recipes for using peanuts. He also spent time developing products made from peanuts. Besides peanuts, Carver also researched new uses for sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and more. With his innovative agricultural research, an invitation to speak at the 1920 Peanut Growers Association national conference, and his testimony in a 1921 federal case on the tariff of peanuts, he became known as a scholar, expert in the field of agriculture, and environmentalist.
Katherine Esau – Katherine Esau was a botanist who grew up in Russia and Germany before immigrating to the U.S. in 1922. During her time in the U.S., Esau worked at a company studying sugar beet reactions to a virus before going to school at the University of California, Davis to obtain her doctorate. Esau stayed at UCD throughout her career where she was a pioneer in the study of plant anatomy. She wrote two books that have become seminal works in plant structural biology: Plant Anatomy and Anatomy of Seed Plants. Throughout her career, her research focused on how plant viruses affected the food conducting tissue (phloem) and plant development.
Esau was nationally recognized for her work with phloem, and was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George H.W. Bush. Esau has also had awards named in her honor, including the award given annually at the Botanical Society of America to a graduate student who is carrying forward the field of structural and developmental biology.
Helia Bravo Hollis – Helia Bravo Hollis was a Mexican botanist who focused her research on the cultivation of flowers and the taxonomy of Cactaceae: the plant family of cacti. Throughout her distinguished career, Bravo helped co-found the Mexican Cactus Society, and the Botanical Gardens at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 1959. She also has a botanical garden named after her that houses many endangered cacti. While focusing on the taxonomy of cacti, she organized a collection of live plants to observe their development and evaluate morphological characteristics. Through her work with cacti and succulents, Bravo has over 160 publications, 60 taxonomy descriptions, and 50 reclassifications. Bravo went to UNAM for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and received an honorary doctorate later in life.
Chemists Like Me
Marie Curie – Marie Curie was a famous physicist and chemist who, with the help of her husband Pierre, discovered radioactivity. In 1903, Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of spontaneous radioactivity. Marie Curie was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to ever win two, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Her second was a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for the discovery of polonium and radium.
Some of her other important achievements include the founding of the Curies Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, discovering the use of radium gas as a cancer treatment, and the creation of X-Ray trucks during World War I.
Marie Maynard Daly – Marie Maynard Daly was the first Black American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry. She was inspired to pursue chemistry by her father, and attended Queens College, New York University, and Columbia University, to obtain her degrees. In memory of her father, she established a scholarship for African American chemistry and physics majors at Queens college after she retired from teaching.
After Daly obtained her Ph.D. from Columbia University, she worked as a physical science instructor and conducted research for a few years before becoming a professor of biochemistry and of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She stayed at this school until her retirement in 1986. Through her work, Dr. Daly studied histones, proteins, the relationship between cholesterol and hypertension, and the uptake of creatine by muscle cells.
Rosalind Franklin – Thursday, April 25th, was DNA Day. We are celebrating DNA Day by featuring Rosalind Franklin as our STEM Like Me scientist of the week. Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist who helped the scientific community understand the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, viruses, and more. She worked at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association from 1942-1947, when she began her research on coal and earned a Ph.D. In 1947, she moved to Paris for her post-doctoral research, and became an accomplished X-ray crystallographer. Then in 1951, she became a research associate at King’s College London, working on X-ray diffraction studies. Through these studies, Franklin captured what would later be discovered as the first image of DNA, Photo 51: an image that led to the discovery of the double helix shape that makes up DNA.
Franklin’s colleague, Maurice Wilkins, would later show her picture to James Watson and Francis Crick, who were also researching the structure of DNA. This was done without Franklin’s permission, and Watson and his colleagues were able to deduce the structure of DNA through Franklin’s photo. They went on to publish a series of articles about the discovery, and only mentioned Franklin’s contributions in a footnote. She left King’s College in 1953 due to disagreements with Wilkins, and moved to Birkbeck College. She stayed here conducting pioneering research on the molecular structure of viruses until her death in 1958. Four years after her death, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. While there was not a rule against posthumous awards, the Nobel Committee does not generally make posthumous nominations so Rosalind Franklin did not receive an award. We still want to recognize her for her contributions to our understanding of DNA.
Walter Lincoln Hawkins – Walter Lincoln Hawkins was an African-American chemist and engineer who was a pioneer of polymer chemistry. Hawkins graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Rensselar Polytechnic Institute before going on to Howard University for a master’s degree in chemistry. He continued his education at McGill University in Canada where he earned a doctoral degree in chemistry. After obtaining a PhD, he worked at Columbia University through a fellowship from the National Research Council. He then became the first African-American to join the technical staff of Bell Laboratories. While working at Bell Laboratories, Hawkins contributed to the development of a rubber substitute. He also worked on a new type of insulation for telephone cables, which was made of a lighter material that could hold up against temperature fluctuations, last up to 70 years, and was less expensive than led. Subsequently, telephones were installed in rural areas leading thousands of people to receive affordable telephone service.
He later became the assistant director of Bell Laboratories chemical research lab. Hawkins work focused on developing new products and new methods of recycling for various polymers. His work with plastics led to developments to help plastics last longer but also become recyclable. After his retirement from Bell Laboratories, Hawkins began teaching and becoming an advocate for college students to study science and engineering. In 1992, Hawkins passed away due to heart failure, but earlier that year he received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush at the White House.
Rigoberto Hernandez – Rigoberto Hernandez is an American chemist. Born in Cuba, Hernandez moved around the world before settling in Florida when he was a child. His interest in science was sparked while in high school, when the University of Miami offered a research program. This interest then led Hernandez to attend Princeton University for an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and mathematics. He continued his education at the University of California, Berkeley with a doctorate degree in chemistry.
Hernandez now works at Johns Hopkins where he studies chemical reactions, transition state theory, and non-equilibrium stochastic dynamics. He is also director of the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) program, which if funded by the NSF, NIH, and U.S. Department of Energy. The aim of this program is to increase participation in the chemical sciences, especially for those people who have been traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Other aims are to support research and awareness of issues of diversity in chemistry fields. Hernandez has won many awards for his work in diversity and research in the southeast. Some of these awards include the ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences, the 2015 Diversity Award from the Council for Chemical Research, the 2017 Herty Metal, and the 2016 Transformational Research and Excellence in Education Award.
Kamala Sohonie – Kamala Sohonie was a pioneer of biochemistry in India, and the first Indian woman to receive a PhD in a scientific field. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Physics from Bombay University, Kamala applied to the Indian Institute of Science. She was the first woman accepted into the program; however, her acceptance was conditional and did not come without struggles. While here she obtained a MS degree, and was then invited to Cambridge University to work and study for her PhD. She then returned to India where she was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Biochemistry at Lady Hardinge Medical College. After marrying her husband, she joined the Royal Institute of Science as a professor of biochemistry, and later became Director of the Institute. While Sohonie researched many different aspects of biochemistry throughout her career, her most notable work was in the effects of vitamins and the nutritional values of pulses, paddy, and foods consumed by some of the poorest sections of Indian. She received the Rashtrapati Award for her work with the palm extract ‘Neera’. Through her research in this subject she found that adding Neera to the diets of malnourished adolescents and pregnant women was significantly beneficial to their health and an inexpensive option.
Computer Scientists Like Me
Barbara Liskov – Barbara Liskov is a computer scientist who was born and raised in Los Angeles, California before moving to Berkeley to attend the University of California for her bachelor’s degree in mathematics. After obtaining her degree, she moved to Boston and worked at the Mitre Corporation. This career choice altered her interests from mathematics to computers and programming. While Liskov originally had debated pursuing a graduate degree in mathematics, her time at Mitre Corporation changed her mind. She left Mitre after a year and began working in language translation at Harvard. This led her to apply to graduate programs in computer science, and she ultimately became one of the first women in the United States to be awarded a PhD from Stanford University in computer science.
Once she obtained her PhD, Liskov went back to Mitre to work as a research staff member. During this time, she was involved in many projects relating to new computer systems and programs. She supported the design and start-up of CLU (a programming language), contributed to the Venus operating system, Argus, and Thor. She also developed, in collaboration with Jeannette Wing, the Liskov substitution principle, which is a particular definition of subtyping. Currently, Liskov is the Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT, where she leads the programming methodology group and research focused on Byzantine fault tolerance and distributed computing. Throughout her life, Liskov has won many awards and is a member of several internationally recognized societies. In 2002, Liskov was recognized as among the top 50 faculty members in the sciences as well as one of the 50 most important women in science. She received the John von Neumann Medal and the Turing Award for her work in programming languages, methodology, and distributed systems. In 2012, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Engineers Like Me
Karletta Chief – Karletta Chief is of the Navajo people, and is a hydrologist who at a young age decided to pursue environmental engineering. After attending Stanford University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering, Chief later returned to school. She obtained a doctorate from the University of Arizona in hydrology and water resources. She now works at the University of Arizona in the Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science as an Assistant Professor and Assistant Specialist. Chief’s work focuses on watershed hydrology, unsaturated flow in arid environments, and the effects of both natural and human changes on soil hydrology. She also continues to work with the Navajo Nation, and examines how climate change poses risks for indigenous people. Chief’s work includes bringing science to Native American communities by assessing information needs, using her hydrology expertise to share knowledge, and developing applied science projects in a culturally sensitive way. Throughout her career, she has won the Stanford University Distinguished Alumni Scholar Award, the 2015 Native American 40 under 40 Award, and the 2016 American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Professional of the Year Award.
Christine Darden – Christine Darden is a mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who worked at NASA for almost 40 years. While working at NASA, she spent much of her time researching supersonic flight and sonic booms. Born in 1942, Darden’s parents encouraged her to pursue opportunities in higher education. In 1958, after graduating as her class valedictorian, she received a scholarship to Hampton University. She was an early advocate in the Civil Rights movement during her time here and graduated with her B.S. and a teaching certificate in 1962. After marrying her husband, Walter Darden Jr., Darden went to Virginia State College to become a research assistant studying aerosol physics while working toward her master’s degree.
Soon thereafter, NASA hired Darden to work in their computer pool as a data analyst writing computer programs at Langley. In 1973, she received a promotion to become an aerospace engineer and in 1983 she earned her Ph.D. in engineering from George Washington University. While at NASA, Darden worked on many projects that dealt with supersonic flight and sonic booms. She revolutionized the aerodynamic designs to create low-boom sonic effects and was appointed leader of the Sonic Boom Team. As the leader of this team, she focused on ways to negate the negative effects of sonic booms and tested new designs for aircrafts. She also designed computer programs to simulate sonic booms and their effects on aircrafts.
Throughout her career, Darden received many awards, including the Dr. A. T. Weathers Technical Achievement Award, the Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Woman, and the Presidential Citizenship Award at Hampton University. She has also received honorary degrees from North Carolina State University and George Washington University. In 2019, she was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Mildred Dresselhaus – Mildred Dresselhaus was a pioneering woman in electrical engineering, known for her research in graphite and semiconductors. Dresselhaus was raised in the Bronx and attended Hunter College to pursue her bachelors degree before continuing her graduate and post-graduate education at the University of Cambridge, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Cornell University. During her time at these various institutions, she served as a Fulbright Fellow, received a masters and PhD, and completed postdoctoral studies.
After completing her education, Dresselhaus worked at MIT’s Lincoln Lab and then moved to the campus of MIT, where she spent the remainder of her career as a professor of electrical engineering and physics. She was also the first female Institute Professor at MIT. Dresselhaus studied a wide range of subjects, but some of her most notable research includes her work with carbon, which led to her being known the “queen of carbon science”. Over the years her research focused on the electronic structure of semi-metals, various aspects of granite, and nanomaterials.
Throughout her life, Dresselhaus was awarded many honors and held many prestigious positions. She was the director at the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, she was the chair of the American Institute of Physics, president of the American Physical Society, and the first female president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to name a few. In 2014 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame. She was the first female recipient of the IEEE Medal of Honor and received many honorary doctorates and other awards throughout her life. Dresselhaus passed away in 2017, but continues to serve as an outstanding female role model in science and engineering.
Mae C. Jemison – Dr. Mae C. Jemison was the first Black American women in space! She was admitted into the NASA’s astronaut training program on June 4, 1987, & flew into space on September 12, 1992. Before becoming an astronaut, Dr. Jemison obtained a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering and a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies from Stanford and then an M.D. from Cornell Medical College. She then went to work as a general physician and in the Peace Corps before applying to become an astronaut. After her time in space, Jemison founded her own company, the Jemison Group, that works on researching and developing technology to help with daily life. Throughout her life, Dr. Jemison has been awarded nine honorary doctorates, as well as many awards, in recognition of her many accomplishments.
Dr. Jemison was a guest speaker at SIUE in 2017 and spoke on “Exploring the Frontiers of Science and Human Potential”.
Mary G. Ross was the first female Native American engineer. She was raised in the Cherokee nation capital, Tahlequah. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Northeastern State Teacher’s college there before going to Colorado State Teacher’s college for her master’s degree. When the U.S. joined WWII, she moved to California to work as a mathematician at Lockheed. While there had her work in their Advanced Development Program, Ross was known for her work on interplanetary space travel, design concepts, earth-orbiting flights, and the earliest studies of satellites. Her work was critical to the Agena rocket project and she coauthored the top secret NASA Planetary Handbook about space travel to Mars and Venus. Though we’re not sure what’s in all those classified papers she’s written, one thing is certain: she pioneered research that jumpstarted the space race and changed history.
Growing up in Louisville, KY, Tracy Drain learned from an early age about the amazing world of STEM. Her mother was interested in engineering topics, though she worked at McDonald’s and not a lab. She saw that Tracy was passionate about science, though, and worked hard to help Tracy be the first one in her family to get a college degree. Tracy went to the University of Kentucky and then got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology where she learned how automated vehicles worked and dealt with hard conditions. This set her up for a career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA and a life flying spaceships!
At JPL, Tracy works as a flight systems engineer for projects like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Juno mission to Mars, and the upcoming Psyche mission to the asteroid belt (launching 2022). “When you think about a spacecraft and all the different parts that are necessary to make a spacecraft work,” Tracy says, “there are engineers who focus on making each of those specific systems. But a flight systems engineer is responsible for knowing enough about all those things that we can make sure they come together in a design that will accomplish the overall goals of the mission.”
Tracy loves working at NASA, which she frequently says in interviews and media appearances. She has been interviewed on her many projects and also about the movie Hidden Figures, the story of a group of other black, female engineers at NASA that Tracy said was inspirational. She plays clarinet and continues to love science fiction books, following a career path that she dreamed of with her mother decades ago. In a NASA interview, Tracy summed things up this way: “I really wish someone had told me that the important thing about being a scientist or an engineer is learning how to think critically, learning how to be creative, learning problem solving and learning how to learn so that you get a fundamental understanding of things so you can attack new problems you’ve never seen before.”
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Lonnie Johnson was fascinated by how things worked. He learned the basics about electricity from his dad and learned to repair household items. From dismantling his sister’s dolls to building his own go cart out of scrap metal and a lawn mower engine, his curiosity about engineering and physics continued to grow. In 1968, while attending the segregated Williamson High School in Mobile, Johnson was the only black student to participate in a science fair hosted by the Junior Engineering Technical Society at the University of Alabama where his compressed air-powered and remote-controlled robot, Linex, took first prize.
With the help of an Air Force scholarship and scholarship in math, Johnson attended the historically black Tuskegee University earning a BS in mechanical engineering and then a MS in nuclear engineering. Following his education Johnson was called to active duty for the Air Force where his work on nuclear power earned him a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the NASA Galileo mission to Jupiter and its moons. Johnson worked on the nuclear power source for the unmanned spacecraft and developed an electric fail-safe to protect the computer memory in the event of a power failure.
From 1979-1991, Johnson continued to work on several NASA and Air Force projects including the B-2 stealth bomber, the Mariner Mark ll Spacecraft series for the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby (CRAF) and Saturn orbiter (Cassini) missions, the Mars Observer, and non-nuclear strategic weapons systems.
In his spare time, Johnson continued his love of invention. While working on a water-based refrigeration system, Johnson came upon the idea that would eventually become the Super Soaker water blaster. After 7 years of false starts and failures, he licensed his product to the toy company Larami Corp., eventually selling over 20 million Super Soakers in the summer of 1991 (and over $1 billion of Super Soaker products since then). He turned his newfound wealth into several companies in the pursuit of research and development of efficient energy systems and new types of light-weight batteries.
He also founded the Johnson STEM Activities Center (JSAC) in Atlanta, Georgia to expose underserved communities to STEM. In an interview for The Daily Press, John summed up his message to future inventors. “It is about perseverance,” Johnson said. “And the disheartening thing is that, when you come up with a really, really different idea that’s really unique, most people won’t get it. They won’t see the vision that you see. And the only way to make the reality is to persevere. … You understand better than anybody what the potential could be.”
On July 13, 2020 Grant Imahara died from a brain aneurism at the age of 49. Imahara exemplified one of the worst kept secrets about STEM careers: STEM IS FUN!!! He was born in Los Angeles and went to the University of Southern California earning a BS in electrical engineering. Imahara’s passion was robotics and after graduating he was hired by Lucasfilm where, among many other films, he worked on the Star Wars prequels as one of the few R2D2 operators. Other robots he helped create were the contemporary version of the Energizer Bunny, Craig Ferguson’s robot sidekick, Geoff Peterson, and his own battle robot Deadblow which competed on the Comedy Central show BattleBots, a robot fighting competition.
His connections in the movie industry brought him other unique opportunities, one in particular took him from behind the scenes to in front of the camera. Imahara was best known for his work as one of the Build Team on Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters (2005-2014). The show and its cast were not only fun to watch, but highlighted the key scientific principles of skepticism and experimentation. In 2016, Imahara and his fellow Build Team members took on some of histories greatest inventions, prison escapes, and bank heists in a similar fashion on the Netflix show The White Rabbit Project.
While every STEM career should have value and reward those who partake, Grant Imahara’s career in STEM took it to the highest levels of fun and entertainment. His high visibility and infectious enjoyment as an engineer likely influenced many a young tinkerer to pursue careers in STEM, helping to improve and diversify STEM fields. An interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson revealed Imahara was aware of his influence, stating, “If we keep dreaming and allowing these kids to have these dreams and have these experiences, some day they will be able to create them in reality.” A sci-fi “geek” to the end, he excitedly posted in March about one of his last projects, a Baby Yoda robot (a la The Mandalorian) to tour children’s hospitals.
Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 (or 1843) a free man in Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred McCoy who escaped enslavement in Kentucky, USA by way of the Underground Railroad. Eventually, at the age of 11, he and his family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Michigan where his father became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad helping other enslaved Africans escape to Canada. Though they were free, McCoy did not have full access to the level of education George felt was appropriate for his clever son. George and Mildred sent Elijah to Scotland when he was 15 for an apprenticeship. Seven years later, after the Civil War, he returned to Michigan as a master mechanic and engineer. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, government and institutional policies and societal barriers limited his success despite the fact that he was a free man.
Unable to get a job as an engineer, he gained employment as a fireman and oiler on the Michigan Central Railroad. Ironically, the discrimination that put him in an inferior position, may have cemented his name in history. As an oiler he became familiar with the inefficiency of lubricating locomotives. Trains had to stop on route periodically to get lubrication causing significant time lost. McCoy saw this issue first hand and came up with an idea that helped revolutionize locomotion. In his father’s barn and eventually his own machine shop, McCoy developed a steam-powered, automatic lubricating device that allowed trains to travel longer distances faster and without stopping. McCoy patented his “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” in 1872. Other automatic lubrication devices had been developed but his invention gained significant popularity and imitations arose. This led to the possibly legendary attribution of the phrase “the real McCoy” to Elijah’s inventions. Engineers wary of inferior products are said to have asked for “the real McCoy” to be installed on their engines.
While the the phrase is not definitively attributed to this McCoy, it has since taken over the popular attribution and has kept Elijah’s accomplishment from fading into obscurity. Unfortunately, McCoy was unable to fully benefit from the popularity of his invention and subsequent improvements. He did not have the capital to manufacture the devices himself until later in his career. Almost 50 years after the first patent, the first McCoy stamped lubricators were manufactured by the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920. By the end of his life he had 57 patents to his name, 50 were associated with lubrication, but others included a foldable ironing board and a turtle shaped lawn sprinkler. He died in 1929 at the age of 85 (or 86) from complications related to a car accident that killed his wife seven years earlier.
Entomologists Like Me
Eva Crane – To celebrate World Bee Day, the STEM Center is featuring a prominent melittologist (a scientist who studies bees) for this week’s STEM Like Me. Eva Crane obtained a Ph.D. in 1941 in nuclear physics; however, she became interested in bees after her wedding in 1942 when she received a beehive as a wedding present. She received this wedding gift to help her supplement sugars in her cooking during the wartime sugar rations. Over the next 50 years, Crane wrote over 180 papers, articles, and books. Crane contributed to the writing and editing, Honey: A Comprehensive Survey, a book that was considered and continues to be one of the most significant reviews on the subject. She also has two books that are seminal works in the beekeeping world (Bees and Beekeeping: Science, Practice and World Resources and The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting).
In 1949, The Bee Research Organization (BRA) was formed and was hosted out of Crane’s house: she served as the director. In 1976, the BRA became the IBRA by adding International to the title. IRBA is recognized around the world as the primary source and provider of information on bees. After serving as director for 35 years, Eva Crane retired from this role but stayed on as a scientific consultant. She retired so that she would be able to focus on her own works, and her two seminal works were published after her retirement.
Lauren Esposito – Lauren Esposito is an arachnologist, similar to an entomologist, whose research focuses on scorpions, and she is also an LGBTQ+ rights activist! She works at the California Academy of Sciences as the curator of arachnology, and leads expeditions around the world to search for and document different arachnoids. She is one of the world’s experts on scorpions, and most of her research has focused on Buthidae and Caribbean scorpions. Currently, her research focuses on scorpion venom, how it has evolved, and how it could help cancer research. Through her work so far, she has discovered three new species and two new genus of scorpions. She has also discovered new facts about scorpions, such as some scorpions hiss by rubbing themselves with comblike structures on their bodies.
Dr. Esposito has also led or created many educational programs, foundations, and networks. She co-founded Islands & Seas, which encourages research and education in Mexico. She also created 500 Queer Networks, a network for scientists that identify as LGBTQ+, after realizing the stigma in STEM fields. In 2019, Dr. Esposito was awarded the highest honor by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, the Walt Westman Award, for her work in creating the 500 Queer Scientists network.
Visit this website to read an interesting interview with Dr. Esposito: https://untamedscience.com/entomologists/lauren-esposito-entomologist/
Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) was born in Cincinnati, OH to Thomas Turner, church custodian, and Addie Campbell, nurse. In a turbulent post-Reconstruction America, Cincinnati provided a safe community for black families to live, work, and learn. Turner was provided a decent education even graduating as valedictorian of his high school. He then attended the University of Cincinnati and received a B.S. in Biology in 1891 writing his thesis on the morphology of avian brains. Turner continued his education at the University of Cincinnati earning a M.S. in 1892. That same year Turner became the first African American to publish an article, which was based on his undergraduate thesis, in the journal Science. While a graduate student, Clarence L. Herrick (Turner’s mentor) felt the need to ask Turner’s contemporaries if they would allow a person of color to attend the weekly lab meetings. Turner’s white peers accepted him at the meetings, but his mentor’s pause shows the racial environment that disadvantaged Turner’s abilities to access science.
Between 1893 and 1908, Turner unsuccessfully attempted to establish an academic position to pursue his primary interests in entomology and cognitive psychology. He applied to Tuskegee Institute in 1893 only to be rejected by Booker T. Washington because with George Washington Carver already on staff, he couldn’t afford Turner’s salary. He accepted a professorship at Clark University in Atlanta, but as W.E.B. DuBois describes it “had at the time about a dozen college students, no laboratories and few books. He received inadequate pay and a heavy teaching load….” Eventually, Turner left or was fired from Clark (which honors his tenure there with the Tanner-Turner Hall) pursuing various academic positions to make a living and become among the first African Americans to earn his Ph. D in Zoology at the University of Chicago. There is some debate as to what happened next. He was offered a position at the University of Chicago after receiving his doctorate, but, again according to DuBois, the professor who wanted him had died and the successor didn’t want him there, using a racial epithet to dismiss his academic prowess. Another account of the events suggests that Dr. Turner turned down the position to work at an all-black high school in St. Louis where he said “I can do more for my people.” Ultimately, whether by choice or racist exclusion, Dr. Turner ended up as a science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Mo, where taught until health issues caused him to retire.
Despite Dr. Turner’s inability to secure an academic position with graduate students and a proper laboratory, he was quite prolific in his scientific pursuits. He published around 71 papers in his life, three of which were published in the journal Science. In fact, during his time at Sumner, his rate of publication was higher than his contemporaries in university positions and he had no assistants. The research he wrote was primarily concerned with insect behavior, but included subjects such as education, natural history, and civil rights. Among his achievements, Dr. Turner was the first to successfully demonstrate that honey bees can see colors and patterns, can learn, and create memories. He showed that cockroaches can change their behavior based on types of reflex conditioning similar to Pavlov’s work with dogs. He also showed that moths can hear sounds and distinguish pitch, ants have a particular circling behavior as they return to their nests (dubbed the Turner’s Circle by a French naturalist contemporary of his), and descriptions of many other behaviors in the natural world. His work turned the understanding of insect as stimulus-response, instinctual robots into organisms that learn and can adjust their behavior to new situations. The most fascinating aspect of Dr. Turner’s work was his methods and discipline. As with his conditioning experiments, he was ahead of his time in using strict controls in observing insect behavior, using replication of experiments to solidify the findings of his research, and observing behavioral differences based on sex and age.
Dr. Charles Henry Turner died in February of 1923 in Chicago after moving in with his son, Darwin, due to poor health. He is interred at Lincoln Cemetery and the epitaph on his grave stone simply and appropriately reads “Scientist.”
Environmental Scientists Like Me
Inez Fung – Inez Fung, a climatologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was born and raised in Hong Kong. After graduating from King’s College, she moved to the United States and earned her bachelor of science in applied mathematics from MIT. She continued her education at MIT, studying how spiral rainbands in a hurricane are organized, and she became the second woman to graduate from MIT with a doctoral degree in Meteorology.
She then joined the National Academy of Sciences, where she worked as a research associate and afterwards she worked at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. In 1986, the Observatory promoted her to an adjunct associate research scientist, and she was hired as a physical scientist for the NASA Goddard Center, where she served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Climate Research Committee. She now works at the University of California, Berkeley in both the Department of Earth and Planetary Science and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. She is also the co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. She has done extensive work on climate modeling, biogeochemical cycles, and climate change and has been a contributing author in the International Panel on Climate Change’s 3rd and 4th Assessment reports.
Fung’s main research focus addresses changing patterns of precipitation through the analysis of East and South Asian monsoons. Her research has also led her to study how trees access water in California’s dry summers and cool the atmosphere. By studying these changes, Fung has highlighted what influences the location, timing and intensity of precipitation, improving our projections of how that could change in the future. “It’s very important for us living on Earth enjoying the biosphere, enjoying the outdoors, to know how things are changing and to understand why things are changing,” says Fung. She is also the founding director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center. “I think nature is always smarter than me,” says Fung. “When I think I’ve got it, there’s another puzzle that nature presents to me.”
Geologists Like Me
Florence Bascom – Florence Bascom was the first woman in the United States to receive a PhD from John Hopkins University, and only the second woman to receive a degree in geology. Her work has inspired many other female geologists. In a time when few women pursued higher education, Bascom’s family actively supported her decisions and encouraged her to follow her hopes to have a career in science.
Bascom’s work focused on the identification of acidic volcanoes and the cycles of erosion as a geological surveyor. She argued that the acidity of volcanoes can change over time, and created prefixes to help identify the acidic changes of the rocks. Bascom also worked as a geological surveyor and authored many reports of geologic folios. One of her findings led to a new definition of how to define a cycle of erosion, as she found evidence that there had been nine previous cycles in Pennsylvania. Before this, scientists believed only three cycles had occurred. During Bascom’s time as a professor, she founded the Department of Geology at Bryn Mawr, and many of her students went on to become Fellows of the Geological Society of America. Throughout her education, Bascom faced many challenges like not being allowed to enroll in the same classrooms as men. During her schooling at John Hopkins University, she even had to sit behind a screen so she wouldn’t disrupt the men in the class. Bascam was able to overcome these challenges and would go on to have many remarkable achievements in geology. In 1901, she was the first female geologist to present a paper to the Geological Survey of Washington. She was the first woman elected to the Council of the Geological Society of America, as well as the first female officer and vice-president of the Geological Society of America. To this day, she serves as an inspiration for women to persist in STEM.
Inge Lehmann – Inge Lehmann was a Danish seismologist and geophysicist. She grew up in Copenhagen, where she attended a pedagogically progressive high school and later want on to the University of Copenhagen and the University of Cambridge to study mathematics. Lehmann received a candidatus magisterii, a master of the arts degree, in physical science and mathematics. She later returned to Denmark to work at Copenhagen University where she served as an assistant to the professor of actuarial science, J.F. Steffensen, and then began working with the geodesist Niels Norlund. While working as Norlund’s assistant, she was assigned to set up observatories of seismology in Denmark and Greenland. This work led to her receiving another degree equivalent to an MA, in geodesy. She then accepted a position as state geodesist and went to work under Norlund again at the Geodetical Institute of Denmark as head of the department of seismology. In 1936, Lehmann published a paper where she interpret P waves as reflections from an inner core: the first in the field to propose this concept. Previously, it had been thought that the earth had one molten core, and Lehmann’s findings helped show that there is a solid inner core and molten outer core. This results in P waves and seismic shifts.
Lehmann stayed at the Geodetical Institute of Denmark until 1953, when she retired and moved to the US to collaborate with Maurice Ewing and Frank Press. While working with them and investigating Earth’s crust and upper mantle, she discovered another seismic discontinuity. This discontinuity lies between 190 and 250 km and was named the Lehmann discontinuity. She wrote her last research article at age 99, and was the longest-lived woman scientist having lived past 104 years old. Throughout her life, and afterwards, she received many awards for her scientific achievements. She was also awarded honorary doctorates from Columbia University and the University of Copenhagen.
Marie Tharp – Marie Tharp was an American geologist and oceanographic cartographer. One of her major scientific accomplishments was the creation of the first scientific map of the Atlantic Ocean sea-floor, which Tharp created in collaboration with Bruce Heezen. When Tharp’s work showed a continuous rift valley along the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and she proposed this was due to plate tectonics, Heezen ridiculed her theory because she was a female. After confirming the rift with Howard Foster, who studied undersea earthquakes, Heezen and other earth scientists began to accept the theories of plate tectonics and continental drive.
Tharp grew up as the daughter of a map-maker for the United States Department of Agriculture, but originally aspired to be a teacher like her mother. Tharp graduated from Ohio University with bachelor’s degrees in English and Music with four minors. With the start of WWII, Tharp was recruited into a master’s program in petroleum geology at the University of Michigan given some of her coursework in geology as an undergraduate. After obtaining her master’s degree, Tharp went back to school and obtained a bachelor of science in mathematics. She then moved to New York and began working at the Lamont Geological Laboratory at Columbia University, where she met Bruce Heezen. This is when she began her research mapping the ocean floor.
In 1997, Tharp received double honors from the Library of Congress for being one of the four greatest cartographers of the 20th century. The first Lamont-Dohert Heritage Award was awarded to Tharp in 2001 for her pioneering work in oceanography. In this latter part of her career, Tharp was awarded numerous other awards in recognition of her research and scholarly work.
Mathematicians Like Me
Grace Hopper – Grace Hopper was an American mathematician and United States Navy rear admiral. She was a pioneer of computer programming and she popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages.
Hopper earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University and then became a professor at Vassar College. At the age of 34, she attempted to enlist in the Navy during WWII but was rejected because of her age, her weight to height ratio being too low, and that her profession was too valuable to the war effort. After her denial, she joined the United States Navy reserve where she was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard and served on the Mark I computer programming staff. She went on to help develop COBOL and developed the implementation of standards for testing computer systems.
Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve at the age of 60, in 1966. The Navy recalled her to active duty multiple times over the next 20 years, leading her to be promoted from a commander, to a captain to a rear admiral by the time she retired for good in 1986. She then went on to work for Digital Equipment Corporation where she worked until her death in 1992. She was interred with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Katherine Johnson – Katherine Johnson is an African-American mathematician who worked for NASA and her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned spaceflights. She spent 35 years at NASA, where she helped the space agency pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She was also portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures” by Taraji P. Henson, which depicts the roles of African-American women at NASA during the Space Race.
Johnson decided to be a research mathematician, although the first jobs she found were in teaching. When she found out that NACA, the predecessor of NASA, was hiring mathematicians, she applied and was hired as a “computer” in the West Area Computers section before being moved to the Guidance and Navigation Department. Through her career with NASA, Johnson worked directly with digital computers, and helped calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. She also worked on the Apollo 13 moon mission and helped create a one-star observation system that allowed astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. Johnson also worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on a plan for a mission to Mars.
Maryam Mirzakhani – Maryam Mirzakhani was a mathematician at Stanford University when she passed away in 2017 from breast cancer. Originally from Iran, Mirzakhani was a gold medal winner in the Iranian National Olympiad for mathematics for two years in a row. This allowed her to enter college without completing the national entrance exams. Mirzakhani went on to obtain a Bachelor of Science in mathematics. During this time she was also recognized by the American Mathematical Society for her contribution to a simple proof for a theorem of Schur.
She then went to Harvard University for her PhD. After Harvard, Mirzakhani was a research fellow of the Clay Mathematics Institute, a professor at Princeton University, and a professor at Stanford University. Throughout her life she made many contributions to the field of mathematics. Her work mainly focused on moduli spaces, geodesics, and Riemann surfaces.In 2014 Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal for her work on Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces. Near the end of her life, Mirzakhani won many other awards and was elected to various academies.
Raised in a well-established family in Washington D.C. offered Dr. (Martha) Euphemia Lofton Haynes many benefits not common for African Americans in the early 20th century. A look into her life of achievements shows that not only did she take advantage of these rare opportunities, particularly in her education, but she also strived to make benefits available to those less fortunate than she. Dr. Haynes graduated as valedictorian of her class in 1907 from the segregated M Street High School, which was one of the first black high schools in the US. Somewhat ironically, the segregation at the time and the lack of professional opportunities for African American educators provided that students, like Euphemia, at M Street High School had a first-class education from some of the most prominent and learned black educators in the nation’s capital. Dr. Haynes went on to graduate from Minor Normal School in 1909 and while working as an elementary school teacher earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Smith College in 1914. She then earned her Master’s in education in 1930 from the University of Chicago. And in 1943, at the age of 53, Dr. Haynes became the first African American woman to earn a PhD in Mathematics (Catholic University of America).
Primarily an educator, in a career spanning 47 years in the D.C. public school system, Dr. Haynes taught in all levels of schooling, from first grade teacher to Professor of Mathematics. She established and chaired the mathematics department at Miner Teachers College, a segregated college, in 1930 and eventually maintained the position when the school merged after desegregation into the D.C. Teachers College. During that span, she also served as a part time lecturer at Howard University. She retired in 1959.
Haynes was equally prolific in her work as a public servant. Most notably, she served on the D.C. school board from 1960-1968, becoming the first African American woman board president in 1966-1967. During her tenure on the board, Dr. Haynes successfully fought for the dissolution of the track system (established in D.C. after desegregation in 1959). The track system was intended to put students on a particular educational track that best suited their abilities, but Dr. Haynes noted that, in practice, it served to limit educational opportunities for poor students and students of color. She criticized that “a school experience which insures no contact of ‘my’ group with ‘that’ group and preserves the attitude of ‘we’ and ‘they’ cannot lead to a unified citizenry, working towards the same goals.” Haynes’ and others’ efforts culminated in a 1967 ruling that the track system was unconstitutionally discriminatory to students of color and the poor.
Dr. Haynes’ numerous voluntary endeavors include efforts in the USO, NAACP, the Urban League, the National Committee of Girl Scouts, serving as president of the National Association of College Women–DC Branch, as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, many local causes, and so much more. As a life-long Catholic she participated in and led numerous Catholic related charities and organizations. She received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pope John XXIII in 1959 for her devotion to Catholic causes. As most of these activities occurred after her retirement, Dr. Haynes definitely lived up to her idea that one should view the “[c]oncept of retirement—[n]ot as a termination, but as a new challenge or opportunity.”
Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes died in 1980 at 89 years old and established a trust of $700,000 for the Catholic University of America’s education department. The university, in turn, created the Euphemia Haynes Chair in the Department of Education. She continues to be honored at the university which established the Euphemia Lofton Haynes award in Mathematics in 2018.
In Chicago, 1923, J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. was born to parents J. Earnest and Lucille B. Wilkins. Both of his parents were highly accomplished individuals in their own right. His father was an attorney who eventually became the first African American to serve in a sub-Cabinet position as assistant Secretary of Labor in the Eisenhower Administration and his mother had a master’s in education and taught in the Chicago Public School System. The importance of education was well established in his household, as J. Ernest completed grade school by 10, high school by 13, and went to his parents’ Alma Mater, the University of Chicago, as their youngest freshman at 13 years old.
Wilkins earned a bachelors in mathematics in 1940 at 17 years old. He hoped to pursue his ambition to become a lawyer like his father, but this goal was hampered by his youth (he had to be 21 to take the bar exam). Because he couldn’t take the bar exam, he decided to get his masters in mathematics the next year and then went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1942 at the ripe old age of 19. Dr. Wilkins was still too young to be a lawyer so he took a fellowship at the Institute of Advance Study at Princeton University in the fall of 1942. Earning a deferral from the Army, which reduced its draft age to 19 in 1942, he took on a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute for a year. The following year, his connections at the University of Chicago landed him a job at the Metallurgical Laboratory the home of the Manhattan Project.
Dr. Wilkins worked with Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi, on research of fissionable material. When his team was to be transferred to the top-secret site X, located in the Jim Crow South, Dr. Wilkins refused to work in the second-class conditions that were required of a person of color. Luckily, his quality of work preceded him and Edward Teller (father of the Hydrogen Bomb) recommended Dr. Wilkins for a new position. He continued his contributions and was instrumental in the development of important nuclear reactor mathematical models named after him (i.e. the Wilkins Effect, Wigner-Wilkins, and Wilkins Spectra). There are conflicting stories about how much Dr. Wilkins knew about the goals of his research, but he was a signatory of the Szilárd petition urging Roosevelt, and then Truman, to offer terms of surrender to the Japanese before using the atomic bomb. Nevertheless, he used much of his remaining career to develop non-military uses for nuclear power.
With the war over and his research on the atomic bomb completed, Dr. Wilkins was now only 22 years old and had the rest of his life ahead of him. He lived to the ripe old age of 87 years, dying in 2011, and his accomplishments are extraordinarily numerous. He spent many years in the private sector working for companies pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as well as optics and other engineering endeavors. In order to counter the skepticism of his engineering underlings he decided to get a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering in 1957 and 1960 respectively. After a career in private industry, Dr. Wilkins the mathematician, physicist, and mechanical engineer was persuaded to take on academia. Starting in 1970, he served as Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University creating the first Ph. D program in mathematics at an Historically Black College/University. After returning briefly to the private sector and a one year stint at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, Dr. Wilkins retired in 1985. This lasted only 5 years before he became Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at Clark Atlanta University, which he held until he finally retired in 2003.
Physicist Like Me
Shadia Rifa’i Habbal – Shadia Rifa’i Habbal is a professor of solar physics at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. She was raised in Homs, Syria and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from the University of Damascus. She continued her education and obtained a master’s and a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Cincinnati. From 1978, Habbal formed a research group in solar-terrestrial physics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 2005, she began working at the Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. Through her career she has focused on studying solar wind, solar magnetic field, and eclipse polarimetric observations. Habbal has lead ten expeditions to view and study solar eclipses around the world. She has also worked with NASA on multiple occasions observing the solar corona during eclipses and helped establish the NASA Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018. The mission of the probe is to help determine why the sun’s atmosphere is even hotter than its internal core.
Robert Noyce – Robert Noyce was an American physicist who began building and experimenting as a child. At the age of 12, he and his brother built a small aircraft which they flew from the roof of local stables. Other early experiences with science included building a radio from scratch and motorizing a sled. With his passion for learning, Noyce began taking college courses during his senior year of high school and completed his bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Grinnell College a few years later. Four years after completing his bachelor’s degree, Noyce earned his doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After completing his doctoral degree, Noyce worked at the Philco Corporation and the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. A year later, Noyce and seven other Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory employees, now known as the “traitorous eight”, left Shockley to co-found the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. During his time at Fairchild Semiconductor, Noyce invented the first monolithic integrated circuit chip, which was more practical than previous integrated circuits. After more than 10 years at Fairchild Semiconductor, Noyce left to found Intel with Gordon Moore. Noyce is known for being a visionary with a relaxed and casual management style. He valued equality and teamwork among employees while shunning the perks that many executives receive. His second major impact on the field of physics happened while at Intel, when he oversaw Ted Hoff’s invention of the microprocessor.
The invention of the monolithic integrated chip, and Noyce’s other findings and accomplishments earned him several honors and awards. Three Presidents of the United States honored him for the co-invention of this integrated circuit. Additionally, he received the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan and was inducted into the U.S. Business Hall of Fame where President George H.W. Bush was the keynote speaker. He has also received the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor, the National Medal of Science, the Charles Stark Draper Prize, and more.
Claudia J. Alexander was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1959 and grew up in Santa Clara, California. Her parents, Gaynelle and Harold, in her words, blackmailed Claudia into going to UC Berkley for an engineering degree. They would pay for her schooling as long as she worked toward a ‘’useful” degree instead of journalism, which had been her preference. While working an engineering internship with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Dr. Alexander discovered a fascination with planetary science. Discovered “sneaking” into the space building, her employer recognized her aptitude and connected her with a scientist in the Space Science Division. Dr. Alexander graduated in 1983 from Berkley with a degree in geophysics, which she felt would help her in planetary sciences. She received a master’s from UCLA in 1985 in geophysics and space physics, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in space plasma physics.
She spent the entirety of her career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. There she was a project manager on the Galileo orbiter mission to Jupiter. During that project she had one of a scientist’s greatest pleasures, finding out she was wrong! Dr. Alexander had spent some time making models that proved that the moon Ganymede was dead, but the data from Galileo showed that the moon actually had an atmosphere, changing our entire understanding of Ganymede! She also oversaw the mission’s terminal dive into Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. She participated in the Cassini mission to Saturn and in NASA’s portion of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Dr. Alexander did not completely abandon here initial interest in writing. Among her many endeavors beyond planetary science, she wrote science-fiction short stories and award-winning children’s books on science. She spent much of her time encouraging youth, especially African-American girls, to pursue careers in STEM fields. As a skilled science communicator, she reached audiences through the Discovery Channel, PBS, NPR, and gave a TEDx Talk on “The Compelling Nature of Locomotion and the Strange Case of Childhood Education.” She also established an undergraduate scholarship in her name at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Alexander died of breast cancer in 2015, ten years after diagnosis, at the age of 56. To honor her legacy the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) recently established the Claudia Alexander Prize to honor mid-career planetary scientists. A major feature of the comet explored by the Rosetta mission was named the C. Alexander Gate in her honor.
“In the annals of history, the athletes and musicians fade, but the ones who make fundamental improvements in humankind’s way of life, and in their understanding of the Universe, live on in their discoveries.” – Dr. Claudia J. Alexander
Psychologists Like Me
Inez Beverly Prosser – Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser was a psychologist born in Texas. She was the oldest child of 11, and spent much of her childhood moving to different places in Texas. Her father worked as a waiter and her mother was a homemaker. Upon graduation, Prosser pursued a teaching degree at Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College, earning her teaching certificate in 1912.
As soon as she was certified, Prosser began teaching in African American elementary and high schools, but she did not stop there. Despite prejudice and laws intended to prevent black Americans from obtaining advanced degrees, she found a school that allowed her to pursue a master’s degree—the University of Colorado. Prosser graduated from the University in Colorado with a master’s in education. She did all of this while still working as a teacher in Texas.
After getting her master’s, Prosser joined the faculty at Tillotson College of Austen, teaching classes in education and psychology. In 1931, she applied to the General Education Board for a fellowship to pursue doctoral research.
She received the fellowship and enrolled at the University of Cincinnati to pursue a doctoral degree in their College of Education. Upon completing her research and defending her dissertation, Prosser became the first African American woman to earn a doctoral degree in psychology. Her research examined student’s achievement in school based on segregation, looking at social and mental health impacts on student outcomes.
Dr. Prosser had a well-established career, publishing her research in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. She also helped financially support her siblings’ education. Dr. Prosser accomplished all this in just 38 years, when she passed from an accident.
Scientists Like Me
Patricia Bath was born in 1942 in Harlem to Rubert and Gladys Bath. Both parents added wonder and support to Dr. Bath’s eventual success. According to Bath, “My father was a MacGyver type Dad with extraordinary mathematical skills and my Mom loved sewing and art. So, I and my brother Rupert got a STEAM head start with at least the M and the A of STEAM.” Dr. Bath excelled in high school, graduating in two years and earning a National Science Foundation scholarship to study cancer growth along the way. Her work with Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital Center resulted in a mathematical predictive model for cancer growth, a published paper, and a “Merit Award” from Mademoiselle magazine all by the age of 18.
Coming from a working-class black family, a college education was not a guarantee, but as Dr. Bath described it, her mother took work as a housekeeper and “scrubbed floors so I could go to medical school.” She received a BA at Hunter College in 1964 and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine in 1968.
While working as an intern, back home, at Harlem Hospital Center she recognized a great disparity in the cases of blindness among her predominately black and poor patients at Harlem and those at Columbia University’s Eye Clinic. This recognition led to a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University and research indicating that Blacks were twice as likely to become blind and 8 times more likely than average to do so from glaucoma than average. Noticing the lack of ophthalmological care for disadvantaged populations, Dr. Bath championed the idea of Community Ophthalmology. Volunteers, including her medical colleagues would provide care to the elderly, glasses for children, and pro bono surgery to those communities who did not have the same advantages as their white counterparts.
Her career after completing residency at NYU in 1970 brought her back to Columbia University and then to UCLA both as an associate professor researching surgical solutions to blindness. Unable to secure funding for her research from the National Institutes of Health, she set out to pursue her work internationally. She spent time at the Rothschilde Eye Institute of Paris, the Loughborough Institute of Technology, and the University of Free Berlin. The research she participated in led to Dr. Bath’s invention of her Laser phaco “for ablating and removing cataract lenses.” Doing so made Dr. Bath the first African-American female doctor to patent a medical device.
Dr. Bath’s immense success came through much determination and despite of a dearth of female and black role model’s she credited the pioneering women that came before her. In April 2019, about two months before she died from cancer complications, Dr. Bath testified before Congress for the Judiciary Committee on Trailblazers and Lost Einsteins: Women Inventors and the Future of American Innovation. In her testimony, she talked of her struggles for recognition comparing them to those of her predecessors. She used her testimony to stress the need for diversity in STEM and STEAM concluding with the statement, “[f]inally, the greatest weapon in our toolkit is scientific integrity. When all else fails, truth and scientific integrity will triumph. In the presence of family, legacy and women inventors, past, present and future, I pledge my inalienable championship for scientific integrity and truth.”
A true trailblazer the list of Dr. Bath’s many firsts includes: first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology; first female faculty member in the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute’s Department of Ophthalmology and first black woman surgeon on staff; first U.S. woman to serve as chair of an ophthalmology residency training program; first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention; and first woman on the Honorary staff of UCLA Medical Center.
Now that the Brood X cicadas have emerged, many are talking about this curious creature’s 17-year life cycle. The earliest recorded observations of this Brood occurred in the 1700s with documentation of emergences starting in 1715 and ending in 1800, and with notes on each 17-year emergence throughout that century. Benjamin Banneker first met this Brood in 1749 on his family’s tobacco farm, initially mistaking them as a plague of locusts. Years later he wrote:
The first great locust year that I can remember was 1749. I was then about seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes, I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension.
He observed them again in 1766 and 1783, correctly recognizing their 17 year cycle and predicting their return in 1800. The amateur naturalist Banneker also made note of the insects’ behavior and morphology writing:
[T]heir periodical return is seventeen years, but they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and fall, then the egg by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth and there continues for the space of seventeen years as aforesaid.
I like to forgot to inform, that if their lives are short they are merry, they begin to sing or make a noise from the first they come out of earth till they die, the hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them for they still continue on singing till they die.
Benjamin Banneker was much more than an amateur naturalist, though. He was a farmer, a self-taught astronomer, an engineer, a scientist, an almanac writer, surveyor, and an early civil rights pioneer who spoke truth to power long before the Emancipation Proclamation. He was also a land-owning Black man and accomplished all of this with the equivalent of a second-grade education due to his requirements on the family farm.
At 21, Banneker famously made a working clock out of wood, modeled after a borrowed pocket watch that he disassembled and repaired. While much of his life was dedicated to farming, he had a remarkable second act starting in his late 50s when a Quaker family purchased land nearby and gave him access to their library. He learned astronomy and calculated the position of celestial objects for the purpose of publishing an almanac. He, of course, had difficulty getting a publisher to print his almanac due to the color of his skin, so he took advantage of his connections with his Quaker neighbors, one of which helped him learn astronomy and published his own almanacs. This approach proved fruitful, and the first of 5 years of ephemerides was published for the year 1792. Banneker, though, lamented how much of the acceptance of his work was tied to the novelty of it coming from a Black man. He wrote, “I am annoyed to find that the subject of my race is so much stressed. The work is either correct or it is not. In this case, I believe it to be perfect.”
Banneker’s new understanding of astronomy also led to his work as an assistant surveyor on a project to lay out the boundaries of the new nation’s capital, Washington D.C. in 1791. In that same eventful year, Banneker would send a letter, including a copy of his yet to be published almanac, to then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, shaming him on his contradictory position of promoting freedom and equality while simultaneously owning human beings. Banneker wrote:
Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to your Selves.
Jefferson’s somewhat condescending reply praised Banneker’s almanac and counted it among the evidence “that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America,” but ignored Banneker’s accusations of hypocrisy. The letter and response were subsequently printed and distributed in multiple publications, including a Baltimore edition of Banneker’s almanac.
Benjamin Banneker died in 1806, aged 74 years. Unfortunately, or perhaps criminally, his log cabin burned down on the day of his funeral, destroying his furniture, books, and, perhaps, a well-used wooden clock.