A legacy of contributions
by Michael Lawson | Special to OW
The STEM fields have contributed to some of the world’s most remarkable advancements. From landing on the moon to the fight against global pandemics, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has propelled humanity into the future and, in so many cases, truly saved lives. Many people, however, are unaware of how Black women have been at the forefront of these pivotal moments in history.
The contributions of Black women to the STEM fields have occurred for centuries, despite widespread discrimination, lack of access to education, and lack of representation in these fields. Regardless of the barriers imposed by an unjust society, Black women have played crucial roles in shaping the modern world we live in today.
The achievements of Black women in STEM have spanned generations. In 1865, Rebecca Cole became the first formally trained black female doctor in the United States. Defying immense discrimination against Dr. Coles’ race and gender, she refused to be deterred. Instead, she used her position to challenge the systemic racism and inequality in healthcare and housing practices, advocating for those who were often ignored or mistreated. Her work with the Philadelphia Women’s Directory Center, which provided medical services directly to those in need, was groundbreaking and impactful.
Dr. Cole’s legacy of service to her community and her tireless efforts to bring attention to the injustices faced by marginalized groups continues to inspire us today. Dr. Coles will always be known as a trailblazer in medicine and a champion for equality.
In the 20th century, Black women continued to face numerous challenges in pursuing careers in STEM due to racism and sexism. Despite these challenges, Black women still made significant contributions to these fields.
One of the most prominent figures is Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and computer scientist who played a crucial role in the United States space program. She calculated the trajectories for several space missions, including the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first humans on the moon. Her work and that of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson helped the US space program achieve significant advancements in space exploration. Because of these notable “Hidden Figures,” we continue to reach for the stars and beyond.
As we think of women who helped humanity reach space, we must highlight the accomplishments of Dr. Mae Jemison, who became the first African American woman to travel into space in 1992. As a physician and an engineer, Mae made significant contributions to science education through her work as a science communicator.
The profound work and contributions of Black women in STEM continue today and have been crucial to shaping our modern world. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a viral immunologist, played a critical role in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. A development that saved and continues to save millions of lives daily. Dr. Corbett’s work of over a decade in vaccine development has been instrumental in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have acknowledged only a few of the many women, like Rebecca Cole, Katherine Johnson, and Kizzmekia Corbett, who have played a vital role in advancing science and technology. These trailblazers continue to serve as models for new leaders in the STEM fields, like Alena Wicker, who was accepted into medical school in 2022 at 13, making her the youngest Black medical student and the second-youngest medical student overall in US History.
Stories like these prove how much one can succeed when allowed to achieve. At the Los Angeles Urban League, we are committed to helping bridge the gap and building pathways to careers in the STEM fields for our communities. With our STEM programs like this summer’s Oceanography Camp and our continued partnership with Bridge Builders, we create brighter futures every day.
We are thankful for the Black women who helped to inspire and uplift a generation of changemakers, regardless of hurdles or circumstances. Their achievements are a testament to the power of perseverance, determination, and passion for their work, and their legacies will continue to inspire generations to come.
Michael Lawson is the president and CEO of the LA Urban League. He served as a U.S. Ambassador in the Obama administration prior to joining the Los Angeles Urban League in 2018.