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Building Inclusive STEM Collections: Books by BIPOC Authors (October 2022): Memoirs and Histories

By Hilary Dorsch Wong, Katherine A. Hicks, and David Kornreich

Memoirs and Histories

Several books identified through our search highlight the life journeys of multiple scientists; some specifically focus on the unique journeys of women scientists. In Mom the Chemistry Professor, edited by Kimberly Woznack, Amber Charlebois, Renée Cole, Cecilia Marzabadi, and Gail Webster, more than eight BIPOC scientists share brief accounts of their experiences as both mothers and chemists.10 Originally sponsored by the American Chemical Society, this anthology highlights the “leaky pipeline” for women in science: only 18 percent of professors at top schools are women. Stories of women who have successfully faced and overcome typical hurdles are collected here, from contributors including Mary Ann Crawford, Jani Ingram, Ingrid Montes-Gonzalez, and Saundra McGuire, author of Teaching Students How to Learn (see “Mini-Categories,” below). Accounts highlight the importance of finding a supportive mentor, especially for women who become mothers early in their academic careers. Some stories also include short anecdotes from children or partners that touch on the difficulties, but also rewards, of having a mother (or partner) with a demanding profession. Stressing advice for future generations of women in science, this book is accessible and potentially influential. In African American Women Chemists in the Modern Era, author Jeannette Brown discusses careers of several scientists based on transcribed interviews, organizing the stories according to career type: working in industry, as academics, leaders in academia, and in national labs or other federal agencies. One chapter focuses on life after tenure denial in academia. The various chemists are asked to reflect on the diversity or lack thereof encountered along their educational paths, and as in Mom the Chemistry Professor, they also provide advice for future chemists. Advice is focused on combating fear, the importance of mentorship, and the need for demanding work. This volume is a follow-up to Brown’s earlier work African American Women Chemists, which focuses on the careers of historical women chemists. In Holding the Knife’s Edge, Thato Motlhalamme and Evodia Setati profile fourteen women scientists of South Africa including Muthoni Masinde, Nolwazi Mkize, and Salome Maswime. Similar to the volumes already mentioned, this book highlights female scientists engaged in a wide variety of career settings. Uniquely, each scientist’s educational background is summarized in a table at the beginning of each chapter, and the final chapter provides a bulleted list of possible careers in science. Again, the theme of effective mentorship and the importance of hard work reoccurs in the advice of profiled scientists.

Further life story anthologies include Resilience and Success, in which Kabba Colley and Binta Colley describe the history of African American women in science, emphasizing facts and figures. This is a data-driven book that explores the societal frameworks limiting entry to STEM professions to small numbers of African American women. The text includes data graphics, for example, the number of baccalaureate and doctoral degrees awarded to African American women arranged by scientific and engineering fields. The authors also address how the study of race and gender in science has been done in the past, in contrast with current best practice. The book ends with an uplifting chapter describing a framework for success, again emphasizing the importance of mentorship, but also stressing parental involvement and early exposure to science. Another unique anthology is Memoirs of Black Entomologists, edited by Eric Riddick, Michelle Samuel-Foo, Willye Bryan, and Alvin Simmons. Part 1 mainly details the life of Dr. Charles H. Turner, the first Black professional entomologist, while part 2 provides memoirs of other living entomologists, including a list of peer-reviewed publications for each scientist, and part 3 offers appendixes on deceased Black entomologists and contact information for those profiled in the book. This book is similar in tone to Holding the Knife’s Edge (discussed above) in providing stories of overcoming obstacles encountered during the life journeys described. Similar to many other anthologies, the text also highlights the importance of good mentorship during STEM training.

Another type of memoir focuses on a single life story. In A Quantum Life, by Hakeem Oluseyi (coauthored with Joshua Horwitz), the author discusses his transformation from James Pummer, Jr., a nerdy 1970s ghetto kid, to Hakeem Oluseyi, the sole Black physicist working in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. This memoir details Oluseyi’s coming of age in Mississippi, education at Tougaloo College, and how Oluseyi focused on obtaining research experience during a summer program to combat a low GPA, leading to graduate studies at Stanford and subsequent success. Similar to other memoirs, this book highlights the importance of diligence, presenting an uplifting portrait of how science can transform a life. Leland Melvin’s Chasing Space also presents an author’s remarkable path to joining NASA (as an astronaut/engineer). Melvin discusses his unique career, including time spent in the National Football League playing for the Dallas Cowboys, his tour as a crew member on a mission of the space shuttle Atlantis, and becoming the host of Lifetime TV’s Child Genius: Battle of the Brightest program, in addition to cochairing the federal government’s Coordination in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Task Force. In Girl Decoded, Rana El Kaliouby discusses her journey as a Muslim woman to eventual success in the technology sector. El Kaliouby is the founder of a start-up company (Affectiva), a pioneer in emotional artificial intelligence, and a winner of the Smithsonian’s American Ingenuity Award for Technology. Like Oluseyi, she details her transition from childhood in Egypt to graduate studies at Cambridge University, leading to her work in AI. The difficulties encountered by women trying to live up to societal expectations is one of the author’s main themes. Like many women profiled in Mom the Chemistry Professor (discussed above) she married and became a mother early, and the memoir describes related challenges. In The Home Place, J. Drew Lanham also discusses his path from childhood to a career as an ornithologist, wildlife ecologist, and college professor. Like Oluseyi, Lanham grew up in humble surroundings, but rather than in an urban setting, his childhood was spent in a small South Carolina country town. He discusses his early interest in birds and field manuals, and how this led to college training at Clemson University. Lanham’s beautiful prose underscores how an early love of nature can lead to a rewarding STEM career. Notably, in addition to this memoir, Lanham has also written two books of poetry (discussed below).

10. Earlier editions of this book, i.e., the first edition of 2014, included significantly fewer essays overall. The 2018 edition (ISBN: 9783319789712) published by Springer is the volume that features multiple BIPOC authors.