After Hidden Figures hit movie theaters in late 2016, conversations about the real-life Black women featured in the Oscar-nominated film bubbled over.
Yet we questioned why it took so long for the story of these STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) slayers to make it to the big screen.
“There is significant underrepresentation,” says Nicole M. Joseph, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the author of the upcoming book Mathematizing Feminism: Black Girls’ and Women’s Experiences in the P-20 Mathematics Pipelines. “We need to disrupt our own negative experiences that we had in school around mathematics…. We need to tell our girls that they can do math.”
In many cases, STEM culture is to blame. A 2017 study from the Journal of Geophysical Research revealed that women of color astronomers face harassment more than any other group.
Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the 15 trailblazers in this list have remained unmoved. Whether they’ve formed organizations to shed light on diversity within STEM or mentored young STEM hopefuls, they’ve not only held rank in their careers but they’ve also paid it forward.
Take a look at 15 Black women who are leading the way in STEM.
This article originally appeared in ESSENCE’s February 2018 issue
Treena Livingston Arinzeh
Arinzeh made her foray into science and medicine having been encouraged by a high school teacher to explore the subjects. She holds a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania and has been lauded for her pioneering endeavors in stem cell research. In 2003 she successfully demonstrated how donor stem cells could be transplanted from one cell to another. Arinzeh is a professor of biomedical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Courtesy of Treena Livingston Arinzeh
Bowe is a former NASA aerospace engineer and the CEO and cofounder of STEMBoard. Its mission is to create software solutions for both government and private entities. She is also devoted to closing the achievement gap through various business ventures and partnerships within communities of color.
In 2016 Bridge secured a $324,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice in an effort to further improve techniques for investigating rape. The chem superstar is one of the first people to earn a forensic Ph.D. in the United States. She’s also the first Black woman to teach chemistry at both Howard University and the University of Central Florida.
BERNARD WILCHUSKY/ UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA
When Bryant launched Black Girls Code in 2011, little did she know that her movement would go global. The organization’s objective is twofold: to empower girls ages 7 to 17 to explore the world of tech and to let the world know that, well, “Black girls code too.” Bryant aims to train 1 million girls by 2040.
JENNINGS/GETTY IMAGES FOR CURRAN THEATER
Perhaps one of the most famous women working for NASA today, Ericsson is a Howard University graduate and the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the HBCU. To date she’s managed spacecraft missions and has been published in a number of journals.
After Green lost her aunt and uncle to cancer when she was young, fighting the disease became her life’s work. In 2015 she was awarded a $1.1 million grant to develop a cancer treatment using lasers and nanoparticles. It’s said to eliminate the devastating side effects associated with such cancer treatments as radiation and chemotherapy.
COURTESY OF ORA LEE SMITH CANCER RESEARCH FOUNDATION
The cancer research veteran was involved in the early development of MRI technology and its application to breast cancer detection. Hylton is one of the first scholars to be named to Susan G. Komen’s Scientific Advisory Board. You can also find her advising and educating students at the University of California, San Francisco.
Courtesy of Nola Hylton
Jedidah C. Isler
While most of us are caught up in mundane daily activities, Isler is studying blazars—hyperactive black holes that live at the center of most galaxies. When she’s not observing the universe, she’s giving inspirational TED Talks and—through her organization, #VanguardSTEM—advocating to make STEM more accessible for traditionally marginalized folks.
JEMAL COUNTESS/GETTY IMAGES FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL
Johnson makes it her business to know what’s going on in our oceans and rivers and on our beaches. She analyzes how past major environmental events (think oil spills and nuclear wastes) have impacted our coasts and, of course, our lives. Johnson received her bachelor’s degree and doctorate in chemical oceanography from Texas A&M.
Courtesy of Ashanti Johnson
This highly respected practitioner has a unique approach to how we think about our health as a community. Her areas of concentration are preventive medicine, public health and health inequities. She’s also launched a campaign to bring the faces of real-life African-American doctors to Doc McStuffins, a popular animated series for children on the Disney Channel.
COURTESY OF TEMPLE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE
Titre-Montgomery has put her creative touch on some of the highest profile products in the business, including video games like Tiger Woods Golf, The Simpsons and South Park. She’s also a fierce fighter for diversity within the gaming industry. She’s been recognized for both her skills and advocacy throughout tech.
For Moore, mathematics isn’t simply crunching numbers and looking at confusing data. Throughout her career, she’s leveraged her expertise in biostatistics to address matters specifically affecting communities of color. Moore has been an instrumental leader in the citywide 2020 Vision Project, which aims to close the achievement gap among Black and Latino students in her hometown of Berkeley, California.
In 2011 Pierott founded iUrban Teen, an arts education program for young adults of color. It offers them mentoring services and prepares them for college. In 2013 Pierott was honored as a White House Champion of Change for her efforts with iUrban Teen, which at the time had steered more than 600 teens toward pursuing careers in STEM and education.
Courtesy of Deena Pierott
Mareena Robinson Snowden
Snowden is currently wrapping up a one-year fellowship at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C. Much of her work focuses on arms control agreements and nuclear warhead monitoring. She also collaborates with policy makers on top secret projects. That’s not too shabby for a woman whose earliest self-professed memory of science and math was fear.
REGGIE SNOWDEN/GHOST NOTE AGENCY
Theoretical particle physics and astrophysics are Prescod-Weinstein’s specialties. She prides herself on not only solving complex problems revolving around the particle cosmos, like dark matter and quantum gravity, but also bringing them to the forefront. Prescod-Weinstein is a mentor and, through her articles for various online news outlets, an outspoken voice in the areas of science and race.