Tag Archives: minorities in science

Awesome Woman in STEM Highlight, Thanksgiving Edition: Mary G. Ross

In honor of both Thanksgiving Day in the US, and Native American Heritage Month, I thought I’d start a new series by kicking off with the first Native American woman engineer, Mary Golda Ross [1]. In 1958, she was a guest on the TV game show “What’s My Line?” where the panel failed to guess what she did for a living, though they got close, guessing that it had something to do with missiles [2]. At one point, one of the panel makes the comment that it’s not like she gets into the nose of these things, which, while technically true, probably steered him away from guessing that her mathematics background gave her the expertise to design them.

While her Native American heritage may have been downplayed at various points in her life, she credited it for her academic success, as her Cherokee upbringing stressed the importance of education for any sex [3]. Born in Oklahoma and the great-granddaughter of famous Cherokee Chief John Ross, Mary was identified as gifted from a young age and encouraged to pursue her education. She went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1920 and a Master’s degree in 1938. She taught mathematics in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and then, in 1942, joined the Aerodynamics and Structures department at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as an engineer. Eventually, she was one of the core group of engineers who started the Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., now Lockheed Martin. Her notable accomplishments include preliminary design work on orbital space systems and early manned space exploration missions.

She retired in the 1970s, but continued to work in engaging young Native American women and encourage them to pursue careers in the sciences and engineering after rediscovering her connection to her Cherokee heritage. In 2004, at the age of 96, Ross donned traditional Cherokee dress and participated in the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian [4]. In 2008, she passed away, just shy of her 100th birthday. She left a large endowment to the NMAI. She showed her mathematical mind once more in requesting that the gift be given as an endowment, rather than a single large scholarship to maximize returns [5].

Women like Mary Ross were trailblazers, not just for women in STEM, whose impact reaches further back in history, but for women of color in STEM, whose role models may be fewer and further between. Her example and her work to encourage young Native American women serve as an inspiration for all who want to extend the diversity of STEM fields.

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On Politics, Women in Science, and Being a White Woman in Science

There is a group who has gained some recognition recently, called 500 Women Scientists, which has published a pledge for all supporters of science and equality in the scientists to sign to show their support. I’ve signed it, along with over five thousand other people. And I recommend anyone else who supports science (woman or otherwise) sign the pledge.

But that is not what I’m here to talk about today. Because a new movement of equality founded and perpetuated largely by privileged white women has reminded me of another piece I read recently, one that has stayed with me longer, and one that I think deserves a larger voice. This piece, written by a black woman who has been through the trenches of graduate school, not just as a racial minority or as a woman, but as both, serves as a reminder that white feminism is not the only feminism and that white women are not just fighting for their representation in graduate school.

The author writes about her experience as the only woman of color in her mechanical engineering PhD program. The problem of not being able to find a woman to be your mentor? Well, you’re much less likely to find a woman of color. In fact, in my own graduate experience, I can’t remember one black student in my graduate class, and very few Latino students, plus a few South Asian. In fact, there was a black professor in our group who sent his white graduate student to a conference for Black and Hispanic Researchers as his representative because most of his students were white.

And while I would never want to minimize the struggles that face any minority group in STEM, it bears remembering that while my women colleagues may get together and think that things are getting better or not really notice that there’s any gender inequity in their research group, this is not the case for other minorities. The work still exists to be done and it needs to be inclusive. We need to commit ourselves to all diversity in STEM and not get lost in our specific struggle. I mean, if my undergraduate class thought I didn’t look like a physics grad student (and would say that to me face while I’m up there telling them how I’m going to be grading them), what would they have the nerve to say to someone who looks even more different than I do?

This is a bit of a short post for such an important subject. But that’s because it’s not really my topic to write about. Instead, I would welcome comments from those whose topic it is. Please educate me, and educate my readers, about what STEM is really like for all those who pursue it.

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On Casual Prejudice and Remembering People’s Names

My colleague recently sent an email to the wrong person because they had a similar south Asian name to the person to whom he meant to send the email. He asked me, “Is that racist?” And, honestly, the answer is yes, a little bit. No, it’s not the kind of racist that causes people bodily harm, but it is an example of the little annoyances of standing out in a primarily white, male environment.

For another example: I used to be assumed to be a secretary by people I contacted from my old job, and now that I work for a female scientist, I’m often assumed to be her before I have a chance to introduce myself. As in, people say “Oh, you must be [boss’ name]” before I even open my mouth to actually tell them who I am. It’s not a problem with which most of my male colleagues have to deal. And, yeah, it’s kind of annoying to have it pointed out that, hey, what are the odds there are two of you in a single physics group?!

The really sad part is that I have a really common female name, and my boss has a very uncommon name. I mean, also we’re totally different people and look different.

Seriously, stop.

Because that’s the crux of the problem: it points out a person’s otherness. Yes, people with non-Western names are used to people mispronouncing their names. They’re used to being asked if they’re from the same country or city as another person who looks vaguely similar. It just highlights to them that you are judging them first and foremost by what you see, and that you don’t have the ability to distinguish between different people who aren’t the same race (or gender?!) as you.

Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s a real problem. Every time it happens, it’s an alarm going off, “you’re different, you’re different, you’re different,” in your head. It grates. As with the concept of “lighten up” in response to off-color jokes, it builds up. I promise you, your slip is not the first time this person has had to deal with this, even if you think it’s the first time you’ve made such a mistake. We notice the people who treat us like individuals, rather than a demographic group. But we’re going to be gracious and polite about it, because what else can we do?

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