It’s no doubt Oscar-nominated film, Hidden Figures strengthened the platform for brown girl STEM advocacy and brought a much needed spotlight on women of color whose contributions were overshadowed. We recently interviewed DC-based Physiologist and current American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Fellow, Dr. LaShauna Evans, to gain more insight on how the film has made an impact on women of color, STEM, and what it means to empower others through protest.
SWC: How important was Hidden Figures to you as a scientist?
LS: We have contributed our intellect in one of THE BIGGEST scientific achievements of America and people need to know how integral African Americans were to the space race. It’s important that these stories of African Americans, including women, are incorporated into the story of American greatness. My hope is that girls see themselves in these women’s stories and dream BIG about what endeavors they can strive for in STEM.
SWC: When did you know STEM was a career field for you?
LS: I’ve always had a natural interest and curiosity for science. I made the early observation while playing at the age of 5 that rocks could be rigid or smooth. I collected the smooth rocks and kept them in my room. My mom found my bag of rocks and asked why I had them, I proudly replied, “Because they’re smooooth.” I loved learning about dinosaurs and nature, but I found my true calling in 8th grade Biology.
SWC: As a graduate of Spelman College, how important is it to continue and extend the conversation around STEM among women in HBCUs?
LS: Very! First, we need to learn who these women are. Growing up, I didn’t know an African American women scientist until I attended an HBCU. A college elective such as African American Women in the STEM is a good introduction. Next, we need to understand the degree of racism and sexism that they faced while doing this important work. Lastly, once we’ve obtained our education and our careers, we need to make sure that we continue to improve upon the framework necessary for young African American girls and women to stand on our shoulders and push forward in STEM fields.
SWC: Being a STEM advocate, have you seen an increase in interest by young brown and black girls?
LS: It might be too early to determine an increase in interest. Initiatives targeted towards underrepresented minorities like Black Girls Code have only recently begun. Recent studies show that the best time to introduce girls is between 11 and 15 years of age. After 15, they quickly lose interest; however, no one currently knows the reason why this is. While African Americans obtaining bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Social Sciences has slowly risen from 1995-2014, other fields such as Computer Sciences, Mathematics and have declined. These male-dominated fields could pose an unwelcoming environment that influences African American women to not pursue these degrees.
SWC: What are a few best practices to encourage the interest in STEM within underserved communities?
LS: Providing experiences in STEM subjects at no or low cost, having hands-on activities in which the students can develop analytical and critical thinking skills to create on their own projects. MENTORSHIP! Enough can’t be said about the importance and impact of good mentors.
SWC: What are the best ways to tell the stories of other “Hidden Figures”?
LS: The best and widest distribution of information is through movies. However, all stories of “hidden figures” won’t make it to the big screen. The next best way to highlight these women is along with the school curriculum, the internet including with social media, and toys. NASA currently has a website dedicated to both Hidden and Modern Figures in science and LEGO is releasing the Women of NASA Lego set.
“[It’s about] broadening participation,” says Dr. Evans. “There’s a need for STEM jobs in America and we’re not prepared to fill these positions [as well as] and the need to increase diversity in the STEM workforce.”
We talked about empowerment through protest and Dr. Evans had this to say, “Dorothy had her own protest with diversity and infiltrating the system [by] empowering other Black women within to increase value.”
Although Dorothy removed herself from the frontline, she knew it was behind the scenes where her objections of being simply a colored computer would garner the most impact. While making the case for STEM with brown girls, we must remember that our fight doesn’t always include a picket sign, but rather a seat at the table to make and call the shots.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.