Diann Jordan

(WOMENSENEWS)–In the summer of 1965, Georgia Dunston arrived in New York City from Norfolk, Va., ready to begin her career as a scientist.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Norfolk State University, Dunston, an African American, spent the summer answering want ads. But when she turned up for an interview, she was either told that the job was filled or she was directed to a position for a maid or janitor.

Dunston did not give up. She enrolled in a master’s program at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, and worked for the prestigious Carver Research Laboratories, where she entered the field of genetics. In 1972 she became the first African American to graduate from the University of Michigan with a doctorate in genetics.

Dunston is now the founding director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she conducts genomics research in the African Diaspora, including investigations tracing the genetic links behind diseases such as prostate cancer and diabetes that disproportionately affect African Americans.

Dunston is one of 17 women profiled in "Sisters in Science: Conversations with Black Women Scientists on Race, Gender and Their Passion for Science," by Diann Jordan to be released in March by Purdue University Press.

Maintaining the Pipeline

Jordan said her goal was to "open up the story" of black women in science by talking to some of the pioneers. Jordan is a professor of biology at Alabama State University. "If we want to keep the pipeline of doctorates flowing we have to somehow let our stories be heard."

"Sisters in Science" include Dolores Cooper Shockley, who in 1955, the same year Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement, became the first black woman to receive a doctorate in pharmacology from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. There’s also Yvonne Young Clark, a trailblazer in the field of mechanical engineering and Evelyn Boyd Granville, one of the first black women to receive a doctorate in mathematics.

Most of the women in Jordan’s book describe how the double whammy of being black and female in a predominantly white, male field was as much a part of their academic experience and careers as lab reports, problem sets and experiments. Jordan says that after black women make it through the gates, they often feel steady pressure to prove themselves.

For most of the women who have succeeded, a supportive family or mentor, sheer will and a sprinkle of good fortune seemed to have made the difference.

Lynda Jordan (no relation to Diann Jordan) had been tracked for vocational school as a student in an inner-city high school in Roxbury, Mass., in the 1970s. Her path changed one day when she was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. Afraid of being suspended, she fled and ran into a school auditorium where a representative of the U.S. Education Department’s college preparatory program, Upward Bound, was speaking to some students. At the moment Lynda Jordan entered the auditorium she heard a man asking, "What are you going to do for the rest of your life? Stand on the street corner smoking cigarettes?" The message hit home and that summer Lynda Jordan enrolled in Upward Bound classes where one of the teachers took note of her talent for chemistry.

Overcoming Assumptions

"For the first time in my academic life, a teacher told me that I was very good at something," said Lynda Jordan, who went on to become the third black person to receive a doctorate in chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "My experience makes me wonder about all the kids we assume are not capable of doing things."

While black women have made inroads into science and engineering since Lynda Jordan was in school, they remain scarce.

Data collected by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency in Arlington, Va., found that of the 7,488 science doctorates awarded to all Americans in 2004, just 124–or 1.7 percent–were awarded to black women compared with 2,274 doctorates–or 30 percent–for white women. In engineering, a total of 1,941 doctorates were awarded in 2004. Of those, only 32–or 1.7 percent–were conferred on black women and 296–or 15 percent–went to white women. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Even fewer women of color are finding their way into academia. According to a 2004 survey by Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, the percentage of women among full professors in science and engineering ranges from 3 percent to 15 percent. Of these, there are only a few African American women in science and engineering departments; there are no black female tenured or tenure-track professors in computer science. (Nelson was named this year by Women’s eNews as one of its 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2006 for her research quantifying female representation in science.)

Failure to Nurture

Shirley Malcom, director of education and human resources at the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science, said women’s ongoing and disproportionate family responsibilities limit their ability to meet the demands of an academic career in science, which often requires people to put in more than 80 hours per week. Malcom also points to a lack of role models and the failure of educators to nurture and mentor young black women.

Over the past two decades, affirmative action and increased efforts on the part of historically black colleges and universities have helped to attract an increasing number of young black women to the sciences. Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, for example, now has a dual degree program in liberal arts and engineering and has attracted students to the sciences through the use of federally funded programs that enable the college to offer financial aid and scholarships. Today, about one-third of Spelman students major in science, engineering or computer science.

These advances could be lost as the tide turns against affirmative action. In 1987, NASA introduced programs at Spelman College and at other historically black colleges and universities designed to attract students who were interested in pursuing doctorates in the sciences. Two years ago, however, NASA began phasing out its programs, said Dr. Cornelia Gillyard, director of Spelman’s NASA Women in Science and Engineering Scholars Program.

"Unless we are able to secure additional grants to support students in the sciences our efforts to attract students will be at risk," said Gillyard, who is also an associate professor of chemistry. "We will no longer be able to attract students in certain disciplines to come here."

Jennifer Friedlin is a writer based in New York.

For more information:

U.S. Department of Education
Upward Bound Program: