In 1987, NASA and Spelman College partnered to work toward increasing the number of minority students earning advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Of the more than 320 women who have participated in the Women In Science and Engineering program, known as WISE, more than half have received graduate degrees, and at least 40 have earned doctoral degrees. WISE scholars have gone on to work for NASA, STEM industries and STEM education.
"The idea was to diminish that stereotype that women cannot do science," said Cornelia Gillyard, Spelman chemistry professor and WISE director. "We would increase the number that achieved undergraduate degrees and, hopefully, these students would be motivated to go and pursue advance degrees."
Located in Atlanta, Spelman is a private, historically black, liberal arts college for women. From its inception, the NASA WISE program has sought to recruit strong, science-focused students with scholarships and unique opportunities such as NASA internships. The late Dr. Etta Falconer, a Spelman mathematics professor and one of the first black women in the country to receive a doctorate in mathematics, initiated the WISE program. The WISE program supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.
In addition to meeting its primary goal, the WISE program led to the expansion of Spelman's science offerings, which then benefitted all Spelman students. The college has since added a physics department, a computer science department and a dual-degree engineering program.
While Spelman's chemistry department was formed nearly a decade before the WISE program, chemistry professor Albert Thompson Jr. said WISE helped push chemistry to the forefront. Today, science majors represent about 30 percent of Spelman's 2,000 students. The college has more than 100 chemistry majors and graduates more than 20 chemistry majors each year.
"The WISE program was our premiere scholarship program," Thompson said, "and certainly it played a major role in putting us where we are in preparing outstanding graduates. When those students came on, it was clear that they were the best of the best. ... I always welcomed them in my class and enjoyed them."
Spelman's Associate Provost for Research, Dr. Lily McNair, said programs like WISE have helped the college move students toward research-based programs that will prepare them for graduate school. "In order to continue with the excellent level of education that we provide our students, we have to have students that are able to come here with a strong commitment to science," McNair said. "The WISE program allows us to recruit and retain the best possible students."
A 2008 survey by the National Science Foundation found that Spelman was No. 2 in the country for sending black students on to acquire doctoral degrees. The college was second only to Howard University, a co-ed university considerably larger than Spelman.
The success of the WISE program is seen not only in the numbers but also in the success stories of Spelman graduates.
Dr. Kelly Bolden, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Fellow, University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center; daughter of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
Dr. Kelly Bolden received a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Spelman College and a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She earned her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine. She completed resident training in general surgery at Emory University. Bolden is currently a Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Fellow at the University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center.
"The contribution of the NASA WISE program to my current success is twofold," Bolden said. "First, NASA WISE provided me with a science and engineering background that has helped me throughout my medical and surgical career. With new technologies and surgical techniques that are emerging daily, my engineering background is vital to my success in the operating room every day. Whether I'm working with plating systems, prosthetic implants, biosynthetics, or rearranging native tissue, my chemistry and chemical engineering backgrounds provide me with a solid foundation to better understand synthetic products, thermodynamics, spatial orientation, etc.
"Second, NASA WISE enabled me to attend Spelman College, the institution that I attribute to helping me develop the confidence to compete in the male-predominated environment that I work in today. Attending an all female HBCU (Historically Black College and University) enabled me to grow and develop the maturity, self-confidence and self-awareness that have allowed me to excel at every level of my education. As an African-American female in Plastic Surgery (where less than 4 percent of all plastic surgeons are African-American and far fewer are African-American women), having the opportunity to be around so many motivated, intelligent and grounded African-American women empowered me to fight the tough battles and emerge victoriously."
Monica Cox, Assistant Professor, Purdue University, School of Engineering Education; 2009 Recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
Monica Cox has a Bachelor of Science in mathematics (cum laude) from Spelman College, a Master of Science in industrial engineering from the University of Alabama, and a doctorate in Leadership and Policy Studies from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. She is currently an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University.
"The NASA WISE program gave me access to academic mentors, motivated peers and to real-life opportunities in research environments," Cox said. "Connecting to the late Dr. Etta Falconer, the director of the program when I entered Spelman in 1994, was one of the most significant professional occurrences in my life. Like me, Dr. Falconer grew up in a small rural community in the South. Although I did not have access to advanced math and science courses in high school, Dr. Falconer encouraged me to apply to graduate school in engineering and to recognize my potential as a researcher and a scholar.
"The year that I entered the NASA WISE program, 13 gifted young women from around the country entered with me. They were some of the best students at their respective schools, and they were extremely ambitious. Instead of competing with each other, we worked together in our courses, and we shared valuable insight with each other about course content. Although I didn't realize it at the time, becoming leaders or professors in our fields were the goals of everyone, and we all believed that we could change the world. Being around this environment every day was the norm, and it was very easy to be disciplined and motivated once I entered graduate school.
"Working at NASA for four summers as an undergraduate was an amazing experience. Before I became a NASA scholar, I did not realize that Marshall Space Flight Center was in my home state of Alabama, and I had never met underrepresented engineers! The engineers at NASA served as role models for me, and I began to see the potential that I had in mathematics and engineering. My summer mentors allowed me to ask new research questions, and I began to understand first-hand how research ideas evolve. After graduation from Spelman, NASA sponsored me as a Graduate Education for Minorities Fellow, and I conducted my thesis research in the ground payload operations department at Marshall. My thesis explored the reduction of human errors in NASA ground payload operations for the International Space Station. I can say that my love of research began at NASA. I continue to use the skills that I learned during that experience in my multidisciplinary research projects."
Adrienne Stiff-Roberts, Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Duke University; 2009 Recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
Adrienne Stiff-Roberts has a Bachelor of Science in physics from Spelman College and a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She has a Master of Science in electrical engineering and a doctorate in applied physics, both from the University of Michigan. Stiff-Roberts is currently an assistant professor at Duke University in the department of electrical and computer engineering.
"The most lasting contribution from the NASA WISE program at Spelman was the strong sense of self-confidence it instilled," she said. "From the very beginning of my time at Spelman, the WISE program enabled me to succeed in a challenging, yet supportive, environment. That feeling of success, and the confidence it engendered, has stayed with me and has sustained me as I have faced new challenges ranging from graduate school to my career as a professor.
"The WISE program provided many different types of mentoring relationships, including faculty, peers, former students and scientists. In addition to the short-term benefits of the knowledge and experience gained from such mentoring, the long-term impact has been multifaceted. First, the WISE program created a network of black women scientists and engineers that I still depend on for support and advice. Second, the WISE program instilled recognition of the need to seek advice and help from others in order to reach your goals, which has been an important lesson throughout my career. Third, the WISE program instilled the importance of serving as a mentor, which has been an important motivator for my participation in outreach activities.
"The WISE program provided my first exposure to a research environment at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield near Sunnyvale, Calif. These summer research experiences confirmed my desire to pursue a Ph.D. and research career."
Chekesha Liddell, Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Cornell University; 2007 Recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
Chekesha Liddell graduated from Spelman College with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry. She also has a Bachelor of Materials Engineering and a doctorate in materials science and engineering, both from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is currently an assistant professor in the materials science and engineering department at Cornell University.
"The NASA WISE scholars program was instrumental in my progression toward an academic career in materials science and engineering and in my success as a professor at Cornell University," Liddell said. "Particularly, the chemistry and pre-engineering coursework, technical and professional development workshops, motivational seminars, internship experiences at Kennedy Space Center, and undergraduate research with Dr. Cornelia Gillyard were valuable preparation.
"Our cohort of WISE scholar peers became a network of support that encouraged each other to work hard and to excel. The financial support of a full scholarship and paid summer internships allowed me to concentrate fully on my studies. Through the program, I was also able to attend the conference of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, and I was inspired to commit to obtaining a graduate degree by the presentation 'I Want a Ph. D. and I Want It Yesterday,' that Howard Adams gave.
"My work in the microchemical analysis laboratories at NASA with Dr. Martha Williams intensified my interest in the materials science field, as we conducted failure analyses on a chemical basis. Additionally, as a Spelman student I presented my first conference poster at the National American Chemical Society meeting on the synthesis of a compound that was important to arsenic metabolysis in poultry. Building prior analytical experience, a record of achievement, relationships with practicing scientists and engineers that could attest to my character, work ethic, and intellectual potential were important in my winning graduate fellowships through the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowships.
"I left Spelman with a strong sense of confidence in my abilities. Dr. Falconer's advice about learning to work efficiently in groups and on teams was one key to thriving in the engineering education experiences at Georgia Tech, and I graduated with my bachelor's and doctoral degrees with 4.0 GPAs."
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