The Value of Tenacity

DiscovHER has the honor to feature Dr Shirley Ann Jackson, described by Time Magazine as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science”. President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT, and appointed by Barack Obama as Co-Chair of the United States President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, Dr Jackson is living proof of the value of tenacity!

About 15 years ago, I began describing a national and global problem that I call “The Quiet Crisis.” It concerns our failure to inspire enough young people, particularly young women and minorities, to build careers in the sciences and engineering. Since such careers require years of training, this is a quiet loss, one whose magnitude is revealed only over time—but it is, indeed, a crisis, since it threatens to deprive the world of much of its power to discover, to innovate, and to address its greatest challenges.

So, how do we encourage young women to become scientists?

I believe my own experience is instructive. To begin, I was fortunate in my parents, who taught their children the value of education, excellence, and hard work. They also encouraged my early scientific investigations, which included capturing bees to study their behavior, and learning about the laws of physics by designing aerodynamically superior go-carts.

Thanks to my mother and father, I was prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that came with the convergence of two events. The first was the desegregation of the Washington, D.C., public schools in 1955, after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which guaranteed that I could attend the best schools, with excellent teachers, right in my own neighborhood. The second event occurred two years later, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, which also launched the “space race,” and spurred the United States to a new emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools, from which I benefitted tremendously.

It was in college, at MIT, where I was one of just two African American women in my class, that I encountered the first active discouragement of my scientific ambitions. For example, when I was thinking of majoring in physics and went to talk to a distinguished professor about this decision, he offered me some surprising advice. “Colored girls,” he said, “should learn a trade.”

Naturally, I was hurt that this eminent man’s expectations for me were so limited, especially since I had the highest grades in his class. But, as I reflected, I realized that I was faced with a choice: whether to give in to ignorance, or stubbornly to pursue excellence. Because I chose the latter—and continued to choose the latter, whenever I encountered an obstacle—I became a theoretical physicist, the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. from MIT in any field, and I have had the wonderful life and career I have had.

Clearly, times have changed. As recent news stories suggest, any academic leader who expresses so overtly the idea that women cannot or should not do science is likely swiftly to be encouraged to resign. Unfortunately, even the most enlightened college and university administrations are largely powerless against unconscious bias, which persists—and which means that professors still subtly may discourage young women from pursuing scientific careers. A number of studies suggest the ways that stereotypes about their abilities disadvantage young women in the sciences. For example, a 2012 study conducted by a multidisciplinary group of Yale University researchers found that both male and female science professors at research-intensive universities judged undergraduate applicants for a laboratory manager position less competent, when the identical application materials were assigned a female name.

It is important that young women become aware that such bias exists, so they can prepare themselves actively to combat it, and not be hamstrung by it. As the Yale paper notes, the applications materials were designed so that the undergraduates appeared qualified to succeed in academic science, but not “irrefutably excellent.” I would advise science-loving young women to do all they can to become unambiguously, undeniably, glaringly excellent—in order to blast weaker forms of prejudice loose from their moorings. I would advise them, also, never to allow anyone to rob them of their confidence. They should insist that they belong in research laboratories (as should more senior scientists from all underrepresented groups). Indeed, they should insist that they belong everywhere that new ground is broken and human understanding expanded. I would advise their parents, too, to encourage, and to reward, such confidence and tenacity.

To create more women scientists, first, we must teach girls that their dreams are valid. We must prepare them, also, to protect those dreams ferociously when they are challenged by men and women in authority. And we must help them to understand that they are heroic for persisting—because the world simply cannot do without the discoveries they will make, and the light they will shine on paths that otherwise would remain dark.

For Women in Science

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