Harvard National Society of Black Engineers hosts inspiring panel discussion

Evelyn Hammonds, Makendra Umstead, Paulette Chandler, Kiera Hudson, and Lindsay Nuon, respectively, are all professional black women in STEM. They comprised the panel at the Black Women in Science and Engineering brunch held late last month, hosted by the student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Evelyn Hammonds, Makendra Umstead, Paulette Chandler, Kiera Hudson, and Lindsay Nuon, respectively, are all professional black women in STEM. They comprised the panel at the Black Women in Science and Engineering brunch on Feb. 24, hosted by the student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Board member Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, S.B. ’20, a bioengineering concentrator at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), moderated the event and opened by articulating the rationale for a NSBE chapter at Harvard.

Questions centered around the speakers’ professional experience, with topics including: what motivated them to pursue careers in engineering and the sciences, did they ever feel discouraged in pursing their dreams, and how their shared identity as women of color supported them through their pursuits.

The youngest panelist, Kiera Hudson, a fourth-year doctoral student in social psychology at Harvard focusing on the origins and intersections of hierarchy, shared her unsteady transition from college to pursuing research and a Ph.D. She delayed applying to graduate school after being told she didn’t have the credentials. Hudson encouraged students to seek many mentors and opinions and to never be held back from pursuing passions.

Umstead, who recently earned her Ph.D. graduate in cancer biology and now works as part of the Pfizer Immuno-Oncology Alliance for pharmaceutical company Merck, talked about the diversity of fields within STEM that many never discover and narrated how even she did not realize the worth of her academic background. Chandler, an associate physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, spoke on one downside to the broadness of STEM. Having good mentors kept her pointed in the right direction, she said, and family members’ struggles with disease kept her motivated to learn about preventative measures despite the fact that she had too many interests and often had to choose to drop certain courses over others in the course of her learning.

Hammonds shared a story about her time as the only black female electrical engineering student at Georgia Tech, where she pursued a joint degree as an undergrad at Spellman College. Upon receiving her first test grade, she and the few black men in the course had scored the worst. Instead of being discouraged, she grew determined to find the cause of this disparity, knowing it was not her own lack of preparation or understanding. She soon discovered the white students had amassed an exam bank of old test questions and had all the right materials for studying. While some of the minority students dropped out of the class, Hammonds studied with those who had access to the information and thrived.

Nuon, who started her career in the military and government agencies and has now made the transition to cyber security startups, spoke of having to be “creative and tenacious” when people would tell her she wasn’t qualified. She explained she had never experienced a moment that swayed her away from her field because she grows more during the tough times. The panelists’ deeply personal stories, and trailblazing accomplishments, resonated with the students in attendance.

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