If you’re invited to tour MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. when they’re having a Lab Lunch, you’ll witness a mob of students, staff, and faculty sitting together over a meal, in pursuit of the social aspects of the lab’s free-wheeling “anti-disciplinary” culture that encourages researchers to break out of the molds of traditional academic disciplines.
At first glance, it’s tough to tell the difference between students and faculty — except maybe for the three or four men who look old, pale, and intimidating enough to be tenured faculty, and the seven or eight students who look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enough to be first-year grad students (or undergraduate research aids). Your guide will then proudly point out the individuals of mention, both men and women who are pioneers in the realms of additive manufacturing, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, synthetic neurology, and holographic displays, among others.
On this day, you’d notice one of the honorable mentions is a female faculty member who is black. Depending on your mood, you may ask (in a reasonably sensitive manner) whether there are other black women in the faculty. The insider would respond in the negative: She’s the first female black professor at MIT’s Media Lab, and the first to focus on space. She’s here to discover how to use and improve space technology as a tool to enable progress in societies across the globe.
Some assert it’s a negative rather than a positive to highlight race in the pursuit of technological innovation and academic achievement. They claim our cultural backgrounds are valuable to the individual, while the achievements of the mind are valuable to everyone. Even as a first-generation African-American, I once agreed with this point of view. I was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood and was blessed with a supportive environment that focused on academic and personal achievement.
In other words, my race was never a problem, and it quickly became a small detail in the grand scheme of things. More important were grades, performance in robotics competitions and on stage, athletics, as well as my eventual acceptance to MIT — in other words, the pursuit of excellence. I’d often be confused, and sometimes annoyed, by the emphasis my black classmates at MIT put on the lack of “color” in the technology space and higher academia as a whole. Forget about whether there are people who look like you, I’d think. Just put yourself on the map.
Danielle Wood: First Black Female Faculty Member at MIT’s Media Lab
To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I was more excited than I could understand. Having lived in rather liberal circles, I knew that race was becoming an increasingly sensitive topic, so I wasn’t surprised academic institutions were moving to include minority faculty in their ranks. But as I looked into her published articles, learned about her extensive and impressive experience, discovered her view of the world, and listened to her speak with such humble passion and unquestionable authority in person and on the stage, I realized that adding her to MIT’s faculty was more than just a way to get social brownie points. Dr. Wood is the real deal. The one striking thought that kept coming to mind was, “She looks like me.”
Lawrence Sass: Architectural Innovator
Perhaps our shared race gave him the courage to confront me as he did at that time. Perhaps it’s simply his nature to be up front with struggling students in his classes. But looking back, I see he was the only professor to see me struggle and not only try to give me a helping hand, but also give me initiative. He was not just interested in my performance in his class, but my performance in life. To say that it had nothing to do with race would be to overlook the struggles he faced as a young black man seeking high achievements in a field as tradition-bound as architecture. I have no doubt he knows what it’s like to sit in a classroom or a conference room and feel no one expected you to succeed. Perhaps, as he saw me sitting there, bashful yet pridefully unapologetic for my poor performance, he decided to cross the barriers and tell me that I could succeed beyond my wildest dreams. The proof was his own life.
Harry Bims: Academic and Entrepreneur
A series of difficult yet fortunate events, in which he dealt with much of the same social judgements, led him to meet a group of venture capitalists who believed in his ability to create a great product. They helped him create a company in 2001 called AirFlow Networks, which developed a patented way to centrally manage Enterprise-grade Wi-Fi access points. From there, stemming from a chance encounter, he was recruited to stand in as an expert in patent law cases. He’s now one of the most sought after and rare individuals who can take complex technological concepts and explain them to a judge and jury to help them decide the outcome of a case.
Harry calls me his “favorite niece” and keeps up with my progress, encouraging me through my graduate studies. He is always willing to hear what I’m up to. More and more, I see him, Dr. Sass, and Dr. Wood, as prime examples of individuals who have gone before me to stand against setbacks of many kinds to ultimately make a difference in the world of technology. And I’m grateful they saw me as a person to whom they could share their stories in an effort to help me make my own mark in mechanical engineering.
Black History Month and Technological Achievement
These perspectives are particularly relevant during Black History Month, when those of us who tick the “Black/African-American” box can take a moment to not only appreciate the road that was paved for us, but consider how we can take further strides forward in the future. It is not just for us, but for all Americans, to consider the strides that black people have taken despite historical and cultural adversity.
In the field of technological advancement, we should appreciate individuals such as Thomas L. Jennings, the first black individual to be granted a patent — once that protected his innovative method of dry-cleaning in 1821. Also, Dr. Patricia Bath, the first black female doctor to receive a patent for her laser cataract surgery device in 1988; and Mark Dean, one of the inventors of the internal technology of IBM’s personal computer released in 1981, that allowed the laptops to connect with several different external devices. Also, the NASA dream team (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) who were an influential part of calculating trajectories during the early days of the US space program.
There are many others who comprise the courageous men and women who were able to impact the society that saw them as “less,” and create a future where other black individuals can become more. For those of us who dream of creating something meaningful in this world, we can look to them as examples, as individuals of great intelligence and character who turned tables and who look just like us. To them, and to those who continue to do so today: Thank you.
In being invited to write this article, it was a moment for me to reflect on what it means for me to be a black female engineer, and I invite you to discover along with me the beauty of a background that once seemed irrelevant to my dreams. In doing so, I hope that you as well are able to see elements about yourselves (not simply race) that enrich your experience in small, but beautiful ways.
For more, read 11 African American Inventors Who Changed the World, 20 Tech Game Changers in Black History, and The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures’ and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA.
(Top Image credit: MIT Media Lab/David Silverman Photography)