9 Black Women Game-Changers in the STEM Fields

by Juhanna Rogers

Dominant historical accounts say that Europeans brought Africans to the New World as slaves. However, history often leaves out that these “slaves” brought with them the knowledge they had from their previous lives. It’s no secret that Africans had pioneered advancements in agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering hundreds of years before being brought to the Americas. And we used these skills to help build new nations.

Today, there is a stereotype that Black children—specifically Black girls—are unable to excel in areas like mathematics and science, because the concepts are too difficult. This could not be further from the truth.

I am not a scientist, nor was I ever really interested in science. However, I have met a number of mentors and colleagues during my time in the academy who are leaders within the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. I wonder if I had met them earlier in my life, maybe I would have had a greater interest. Nonetheless, I think it is important now as an educator that I expose my students to Black women who are scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and leaders within these and other related fields.

Here are nine Black women who have or who currently are changing the world of STEM and serve as motivation for other Black and Brown girls to pursue their interests in the same fields.

Mae C. Jemison, M.D.

Dr. Mae Jemison was born in Alabama and raised in Chicago. Growing up, her parents made her spend many hours in the library reading about the sciences, which sparked her passion for STEM. The history-maker attended Stanford University, where she earned a degree in chemical engineering. Jemison would then go on to earn a medical degree from Cornell University. She worked as a physician in California for a few years after finishing medical school, before joining the Peace Corps to serve as a researcher and physician in Liberia and Sierra Leone. After returning to the United States, she decided to apply to NASA for its astronaut training program in 1987. In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to ever go to space with the Endeavour mission.

Alexa Canady, M.D.

Dr. Alexa Canady grew up in Michigan. Her father was a dentist and her mother an educator. Dr. Canady’s interest in science grew more intense after she participated in a pre-college program at the University of Michigan. She later went on to earn a degree in zoology and attended medical school at the University of Michigan. In 1980, she became the first African-American neurosurgeon and dedicated her career to pediatric patients in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan. In 1987, she became Chief of Neurosurgery at the Michigan’s Children Hospital until she retired in 2001. Dr. Canady returned to practice medicine part-time after learning her new community in Florida did not have a practicing African-American surgeon in pediatrics.

Marie M. Daly, Ph.D.

Dr. Marie Daly was born in 1921 to a family who was dedicated to her education. After her father had to leave Cornell University due to the steep tuition, he was determined to make sure his daughter was a success. Daly studied at Queens College and New York University, before becoming the first African-American to earn a doctorate degree in chemistry (from Columbia University). As a graduate student at Columbia, Daly studied under Dr. Mary L. Caldwell. Afterwards she continued to conduct research and teach at universities throughout New York City. Dr. Daly spent many years as faculty at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. As a faculty member and researcher, she championed the need to support students of color interested in pursuing physics and chemistry at Queens College by establishing a scholarship fund in memory of her father.

Majorie Lee Browne, Ph.D.

In 1949, Dr. Marjorie Browne was the third African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. During her time at the University of Michigan, she was a teaching assistant in her field, which was also a major accomplishment in the early 1940s. As a scholar, Dr. Browne received numerous prestigious awards and grants that helped to advance her research—including a grant from the Ford Foundation and funding from technology giant IBM. With the IBM funds, she became one of the first scientists to set up an electronic computer lab at a historically Black college in 1960—at what was then known North Carolina College (or North Carolina A&T University today).

Norma Sklarek

Norma Sklarek was born in Harlem, New York and was a graduate of Columbia University. Ms. Sklarek was the first African-American woman to earn an architect’s license in the state of New York. Not only did she build a lasting career in a field dominated by White men, but she was also an advocate for more women in the field. Later in her career, she started her own all-women architect firm. Norma Sklarek’s spirit and work left an imprint on the world as her work can still be seen nationally and internationally. For example, two of her most well-known projects are the American Embassy in Tokyo and Fox Plaza in San Francisco.

Aprille J. Ericsson-Jackson, Ph.D.

Aprille Ericsson-Jackson is a native of Brooklyn, New York. She attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology before attending graduate school at Howard University. She was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University and the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Engineering at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. As she continues her career at NASA, Dr. Ericsson-Jackson is also committed to educating and inspiring more African-American students to pursue careers in STEM.

Ashanti Johnson, Ph.D.

Dr. Johnson is the first African-American woman to graduate with a doctorate in oceanography from Texas A&M University. Dr. Johnson has taught at several universities across the country and currently serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Broadening Participation and as the Assistant Vice Provost for Faculty Recruitment within the Division of Faculty Affairs at the University of Texas in Arlington. In January 2010, she received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring at the White House, in recognition of her professional achievements and diversity-related activities.

Lisette Titre

Lisette Titre is a video game designer and education curriculum consultant with over 13 years of experience. Lisette graduated magna cum laude from Miami International University for Art and Design with a degree in computer animation. As a consultant for gaming companies she has left her mark on EA Sports and other major companies. Lisette has graced the cover of Black Enterprise magazine due to her entrepreneurial efforts. Recently, she partnered with Soledad O’Brien to encourage more young girls to consider education and jobs in STEM. Lisette is also a member of Blacks in Gaming, which seeks to get more African-Americans involved in the game design world.

Aletha Maybank, M.D.

Dr. Aletha Maybank is a young, highly respected physician. Her medical interests and areas of expertise include preventive medicine; nutrition and fitness; maternal and child health; cancer; HIV/AIDS; community health; and health inequities. Dr. Maybank focuses on creatively using her medical degree to make changes in the quality of healthcare nationally and internationally; therefore, instead of practicing in a hospital, she is making strides in the political arena. Dr. Maybank launched a campaign to bring the faces of real life African-American doctors to the popular children’s animated series, Doc McStuffins, in order to inspire young Black girls to pursue medical professions. Dr. Maybank also serves as Assistant Commissioner of Health for the New York City Department of Health.

Juhanna Rogers is a regular contributor to For Harriet.

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