Sunday, March 29, 2009

Diversity in Science – Celebrating Women Achievers in Science.

The second installment of the Diversity in Science Carnival has been posted at Thus Spake Zuska. I am very happy so many people continue to participate in the effort. But can you believe it; I failed to write my post in time. However, I have a post-addendum contribution to Women Acheivers of STEM: Past and Present.

Today, I honor Dr. Roger Arliner Young. The name might sound masculine; she was indeed a woman, in fact the first African-American Woman to earn a doctorate in Zoology. While an unlikely undergraduate science student, she was mentored by Ernest Everett Just, a prominent Black zoologist at the turn-of-the-other-century and for anyone familiar with African-American Black Greek lettered organizations, a co-founder of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.

Dr. Young’s story is interesting to me because I find myself particularly drawn to historical science leaders with whom I share an academic connection in this case an African-American woman who studied zoology. Her ground-breaking work was with paramecium and cells and in marine ecosystems. She is also the first African-American woman to publish in the journal Science. However, her scientific career was fraught with challenges. Her grades as an undergraduate student were unimpressive, but she was obviously brilliant. Her many mentors, prominent scientists at the time and white men saw past her grades and her life issues – she was caring for an invalid mother and had some mental instabilities. Initially she was enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago (1929) – the same institution Charles Henry Turner attended. However, she failed her qualifying exams – an important exam in Ph.D. programs. She was embarrassed and disappeared. Years later, she re-surfaced taught at Howard University, her alma mater. However, things began to go sour there, too. She was dismissed from her position in 1937, but this time she turned the tables in her favor. She used the time to try for her Ph.D. again and was successful. She received her degree in 1940 from the University of Pennsylvania.

She continued to research and teach, but moved a lot from institution to institution. Eventually her mental distress got the best of her and was hospitalized. Though she never experienced any big fanfare and success, she is very much a real Woman Achiever and Science Hero of mine. Her life is a personal testimony that hardships are not permanent barriers. That even the most ‘unlikely’ students can sometimes possess impressive scientific minds. Science is staffed by real people, sometimes fragile people who live with their imperfect lives. I realize that my slowly moving dissertation meter and the life issues I confront daily are a part of life but it that doesn’t mean I can’t accomplish my goals. I sometimes feel a little sad for myself because I am the last of my cohort who has yet to graduate. Even students who started years after me have defended and moved away and I am still here. I feel lonely and disappointed. But then I think, yes, I’m still here. I’m sticking it out. Yes, it is taking me longer, much longer, to finish than I or any of my professors intended, but like Roger Arliner Young, I am finishing. And it doesn’t matter it how long it takes. It is her indomitable spirit that I channel today and everyday and I near completion of my dissertation; and when it is complete I will dedicate it to her memory.


Vicky said...

Well, you make me feel better about not finishing my post in time either.

P.S. That logo for the Carnival is AWESOME!!!!!

William Wallace said...

Nice logo. Honest question, though. Which is more important, science, or diversity? And what evidence is there that promoting diversity leads to either better science or more diversity?

I am not picking on you, as this promotion of diversity for diversity's sake is ubiquitous. But I wonder if there is any evidence that we are getting better scientists as a result.

DNLee said...

Interesting question. For one thing I don't think of the current status of diversity as science as a measure of the quality of science or scientists we have. So promoting diversity isn't about making the science better, though there is evidence that having different people doing science does expand perspective and the types of questions pursued. The feminist literature on science is replete with examples of how hypotheses were expanded.

Does promoting diversity lead to more diversity? It can. When institutions work hard to train and/or recruit students then we do increase the numbers of students interested in, pursung degrees, and earning degrees in STEM

Finally, I do promote diversity for diversity sake. I can name a host of reasons why diversity has positive impacts...but it's about the fact that I am ready to see and interact with more scientists who look like me. I'm ready for an academia where if I walk into the classroom, students can just as easily accept that I am the professor and not the janitor.

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