In an age when we are launching new rocket designs into space, and sending information instantly over wireless channels, there is still a gender gap in the #STEM fields. The first computer programmer in the world was a woman named Ada Lovelace, and modern binary code was developed by a Navy engineer named Grace Hopper. Yet, there is still a whole community, spanning generations, of African American women who have moved us forward in STEM development and have received little recognition for their contributions. In this blog post we are going to celebrate the African American women who have used their intelligence and ingenuity to pursue their passion for science, technology, engineering, and math, despite adversity.
As recently portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson was a genius mathematician whose calculations helped to get the first astronauts to the moon. When John Glenn learned that the calculations for his orbital flight in 1962 were being done by a computer, he refused to go into space until Katherine herself confirmed that they were correct. After 33 years working for NASA, Katherine retired in 1986, and 20 years later she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Though she was not a scientist or doctor, Henrietta Lacks is still one of the most influential people in medicine to this day. On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to diagnose abnormal pain and bleeding in her abdomen. Physician Howard Jones quickly diagnosed her with cervical cancer. During her subsequent radiation treatments, doctors removed two cervical samples from Lacks without her knowledge. She died at Johns Hopkins on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Ms. Lacks’ blood cells were able to multiply at rates that had never been seen before, or since and her blood cells were kept without her knowledge for research and are still being used in labs across the country today. The line of cells that there made from her sample were named the HeLa line, ironically to honor Henrietta. Jonas Salk used the HeLa strain to develop the polio vaccine, and since then her cells have contributed to over 10,000 patents. Unfortunately she never knew about her contribution to science and her family was never compensated by the labs that used her blood without permission for their research. For more information about her life and the importance of her contribution to science, read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Lilia Ann Abron:
The first African American woman to earn a PhD in Chemical Engineering in the United States at the University of Iowa, Lilia Ann Abron has made incredible achievements in her field since she began her career in 1972. Abron founded PEER Consultants in 1978, an environmental engineering consulting firm that provides solutions to the problems of contamination of the environment. In 1995, Abron founded Peer Africa with the mission of building energy-efficient homes in post-apartheid South Africa. Peer Africa’s Witsand iEEECO (Integrated Energy Environment Empowerment-cost Optimization) Sustainable Human Settlement won the American Academy of Engineers 2012 Superior Achievement Award. To learn more about Abron’s achievements and community projects visit: thehistorymakers.org.
Dr. Donna Auguste:
A businesswoman and entrepreneur who specialized in software development, Donna Auguste is the genius behind Freshwater Software. Her company, founded in 1996, was created to offer companies the ability to monitor and track their presence on the internet. After she sold the company in 2000 she went on to found the Leave a Little Room Foundation, LLC, a philanthropic organization that helps to provide housing, electricity, and vaccinations to poor communities around the world. Despite adversity from her male peers and instructors, Auguste received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley and went on to become the first African American woman in the PhD program at Carnegie Mellon University. For more information on Dr. Auguste visit her profile on the NCWIT website.
Dr. Alexa Canady:
Born in 1950, she was the first African American Woman in the United States to become a neurosurgeon. After almost dropping out of her undergraduate program, she gained the confidence to continue her work and went from being a zoology major to medicine. Though initially she was not taken seriously as a doctor, she quickly proved herself to her peers and was voted one of the top residents in her program. Dr. Canady was chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 until her retirement in June 2001. She also holds two honorary degrees, and received the Children’s Hospital of Michigan’s Teacher of the Year award in 1984, and was inducted into the Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1989.
Dr. Jeanette Epps:
Dr. Epps is an astronaut that was selected by NASA in 2009 after serving in the CIA for seven years. She has two doctorates, one for Philosophy (1994) and the other in Aerospace Engineering (2000) from the University of Maryland. The New York native was a NASA Fellow during graduate school and authored several journal and conference articles describing her research.
Evelyn Boyd Granville:
The second African American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics from an American university when she graduated from Yale in 1949, Dr. Granville was a pioneer in the field of computing. In 1952, Granville temporarily abandoned teaching to become a mathematician for the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., her work centering on the analyzation and application of mathematics toward the development of missile fuses. After joining IBM in 1956, she created computer software for NASA’s Project Vanguard and Project Mercury space programs. After leaving her position at NASA, she went back to teaching for 30 years until she retired in 1997.
There are thousands more women who could be added to this list, and we hope that this post inspires you to continue to learn more about the women who brought us into the modern technology age. Despite adversity, aggression, and subversion, these women refused to abandon their dreams of an education and a career in STEM. Their passion led to advancements in the field that are still making a difference today. Feel free to add to this list in the comments and tell us more about the women in the field who have inspired you!
The first degree conferred by Coleman University (when it was first named the Automation Institute) was to a young woman for Data Processing in 1964, and we have continued our mission for equality in STEM fields ever since. If you have been thinking about starting your career in Software Development, Cybersecurity, or Game Development we have classes that start every ten weeks, so you can pick when you want to start on your degree path! Give us a call at (858) 499-0202 to learn more about our degree programs and career services opportunities.