Dr. Knatokie Ford – Founder and CEO of Fly Sci Enterprise
How many of you loved math as a kid? No? Okay. Now, how many of you were maybe in the other bucket, and you probably didn’t like math as much, and you maybe felt like, “Hey, maybe I’m not a ‘math person.'”
Unfortunately, we have a culture that makes it acceptable to opt out of developing math skills, but when it comes to literacy, it’s not okay to say, “Hey, reading just wasn’t my thing.” This is a major problem, because 80% of the fastest growing jobs require math or science skills. And of the five million unfilled jobs in this country today, more than half a million are in Information Technology, or IT, which is more than any other occupation. We have a mismatch between the supply and this growing demand for people with skills in science, technology, engineering, and math.
In fact, a 2012 report by President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisory Council said that we need to produce one million additional STEM college graduates by the year 2022. That’s one million on top of the projected three million.
So, why does STEM have this worker shortage? I just gave it away. It’s actually because STEM has a major diversity issue. Women make up roughly half of this country, but are only 29% of STEM workers. When it comes to race and ethnicity, African-Americans and Hispanics comprised around 26% of the US population in 2013, but were only about, or barely 11% of the science and engineering workforce. This diversity challenge is not just a matter of us needing more workers, we’re actually missing out on ideas.
Research indicates that teams that have diverse perspectives are more creative and more innovative, especially when it comes to solving complex problems. So, STEM’s diversity challenge is a complex one, and there are a number of factors that contribute to this. I want to share a few of them with you in the context of my own experience as a woman in STEM. Here I am… I knew you guys were going to laugh, it’s okay! I was female Steve Urkel, I get it.
So, this is me in the fourth grade. I, already at this age, had a real love for science. I was really curious about the world that surrounded me, the physiology of the human body, how did the eyes work? I also really loved math. In fact, when I was in high school, my geometry teacher would actually let me teach class for her if she was going to be gone for the day. She trusted me more than a substitute! And I loved it, I took great delight in that.
So, I was very fortunate because I had a wonderful support system in the form of great teachers, and I had two wonderful parents who always instilled in me the belief that if I was willing to work hard, I could do anything that I put my mind to. So, this gave me a great sense of confidence as a child, and this carried me on to pursue a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in chemistry at Clark Atlanta University. And I had a wonderful experience at Clark Atlanta. And my academic success continued.
So, this prompted me to be ambitious as I applied for graduate school. I applied for a PhD program in biological and biomedical sciences at Harvard Medical School, and to my pleasant surprise, I got in. But this is where things changed for me. The transition to Harvard was hard, not just because I was going from rigorous chemistry to hardcore biology, but I was also transitioning to this culture shock of leaving a historically black college in Atlanta, to go to an Ivy League institution in New England.
For the first time, it was hard for me to look around and see people that looked like me, as teachers or students. And so, I started to struggle with my classes, they were hard. And it wasn’t long before I started to feel like, “Hey, maybe I’m not that smart after all. Maybe Harvard made a mistake. And what if somebody finds out that I don’t deserve to be here?” So, there’s a term for this, and it’s called “the impostor syndrome.”
This impostor syndrome wreaked havoc on that confidence that I once had, as a child and as a young woman. I became a different person. I even changed the way I dressed. I said, “Surely, I shouldn’t look like a girly girl” — if I was into fashion or make-up — “because who would take me seriously as a scientist?” And so, I began to retreat into this self-imposed shell, I would go to class and I was so afraid to speak up, many times, I was the only African-American in my courses — which included small group discussion — and I was paralyzed with this fear of saying something wrong. What if I sounded silly? And what if that might confirm what I thought everyone else around me already suspected, that as a woman, and as a person of color, I wasn’t supposed to be good at science anyway? This is known as “stereotype threat.”
So, this combination of stereotype threat and its close cousin, the impostor syndrome catapulted me into a deep depression. Deep depression, it was so hard to go through this motion everyday of pretending that I was okay and that I felt confident. And so, ultimately, I decided that I couldn’t continue this way, I just could not go on. So, after one semester, I left. I left Harvard. And I went to Hollywood.
Now, this is not as much of a stretch as you might think, I had always been into the performing arts as a child, and so I decided, if I was going to take a break from graduate school, I was going to go as far away from science as I could get. And so, trying to become an actor is hard, too. And not the most lucrative career move either. So, I quickly discovered that I was not willing to starve to become an actor. And so, I took a position to help make ends meet as a teacher in the Los Angeles unified school district, primarily getting positions at this one middle school, right in the heart of South Central L.A.
So, this was another turning point for me. It was this experience, working with these children who were considered “underserved” that made me realize something: those feelings that I felt in graduate school, where I didn’t feel smart anymore, or that I was so insecure; there are kids dealing with that in the seventh grade. I didn’t experience it until grad school. So, if those feelings could be so significant for me, as an adult, with a track record of success, that these feelings could prompt me to leave a place like Harvard, how damaging could they be to a seventh-grader?
This issue of stereotype threat can literally impact the students’ ability to achieve. If you tell a group of girls, before they take a math test, that boys are better at math, those girls will perform worse than if you had not identified this negative stereotype at all. And the same is true for African-Americans and Hispanics. Students who express interest in STEM in middle school, are three times as likely to graduate with a degree in STEM.
Middle school, unfortunately, is also the age where girls and minorities become more susceptible to losing interest in STEM. So, I decided that, after being gone from Harvard for more than a year, that I wanted to go back, and I was going to finish that degree. And not just because I wanted to be a role model for kids, but I wanted to also prove to myself that I could do it, and more importantly, I was hoping that somebody, someday, might see someone who looks like me and be inspired to think, “Hey! Maybe I can do it, too.”
So, when I got back to Harvard, it was even harder the second time! That impostor syndrome was waiting for me right at the front door. But my perspective was a little different this time, and I had an added incentive, an additional motivation. I was determined to not quit, so I kept going. And it was not until I was about to graduate, that I got a very simple but practical piece of advice that finally gave me a tool to help address and combat this impostor syndrome. A post-doc in my life said to me, “Knatokie, you have to get out of this habit of comparing yourself to other people. The only person that you should compare yourself to is you. If you can look at where you are today, versus where you were six months or a year ago, and if you can see progress, that’s all that matters, that’s what success is.” And that was a real game changer for me.