"A PARTICULAR PASSION: SCIENCE-BASED CAREERS
IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY"
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The Harvard Foundation's Fourth Annual Conference
American Minorities in Science, Engineering and Mathematics
in the Twenty-First Century
April 4, 1997
I am deeply appreciative of the recognition that you have bestowed on me today. I would like to express my deepest thanks to the Harvard Foundation, and its distinguished Director, Dr. S. Allen Counter; to the Harvard Society of Black Scientists and Engineers; to Hispanics in Medicine, Engineering and Informational Sciences; and to Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe. It is also a great pleasure to participate in a conference dedicated to a purpose close to my heart: namely, increasing the participation of women and minorities in science, engineering, and mathematics. To see you, and to interact with you, is particularly gratifying given the recent College Fund report (Washington Post, 2/27/97, p. A22) on the status of African-Americans in American higher education. That report, in addition to revealing a huge gender gap in college attendance and college graduation among African-Americans, shows how much African-Americans lag the majority in receipt of bachelor's degrees (21% white for ages 25-60 vs 14% Black). In addition, the choice of studies for African-Americans is not in the sciences. At the graduate level, Black men tend to study education and Black women tend to concentrate in public administration. Only three percent of the recipients of doctorates are Black, and only five percent of university faculties are Black. It goes without saying then that I am very pleased -- as a physicist, an African-American, an MIT alumna and MIT Life Trustee -- to be here with you this afternoon.
Let me interject at this point that while many of my comments will refer to African-Americans, I believe that they have relevance to other minority groups as well. Lest there be any misunderstanding, my interest is, by no means, in the advancement only of African-Americans; rather, it is in seeing that all of the historically disadvantaged minorities in this society receive a truly equal chance at educational, professional, and personal fulfillment.
As Dr. Counter has told you, I am an MIT graduate, and when I was at the "Institute," I must admit, we MIT students had a certain ambivalence about Harvard and Radcliffe. It was almost an article of faith for us that while we were tooling away, day and night, in the lab or in the library, those happy-go-lucky students up the street had nothing better to do with their time than row boats, throw frisbees, and loll in the sun on the banks of the Charles.
Perhaps we exaggerated just a bit.
Actually, in our heart of hearts we knew that Harvard and Radcliffe were marvelous institutions, and those of us who cared about such things knew that they also had begun to take very seriously the need to encourage diversity in their student bodies. Those were the years, for example, in which President Bunting of Radcliffe was making a determined effort to increase the number of African-American applicants. In just six or seven years, the percentage of African-Americans in the Radcliffe entering class went from about one percent to almost ten percent. It is also a matter of record that when it came to awarding doctorates to African-American women, Radcliffe, which conferred a Ph.D. on Eva Dykes in 1921, was 52 years ahead of MIT. The Harvard Foundation, I know, owes its existence to Harvard's recognition, in the era of President Bok, that inclusion of people from across the whole spectrum of society, is the path that must be followed, both for a great university and for society as a whole.
The years that I was an undergraduate in Cambridge -- 1964 to 1968 -- were tumultuous, sometimes triumphant, and all too often tragic. I arrived here at the end of what the history books recount as the "Freedom Summer," when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. Hundreds of volunteers of all races went to Mississippi to help African-Americans, who had been disenfranchised all their lives, register to vote for the first time. Not all of those volunteers went home alive. The spring of 1968, of course, was when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. I remember well how that news shook the members of the MIT African-American community -- all nine or ten of us, out of a student body of 8,000. The murder of Robert F. Kennedy took place the week I graduated.
In those years, as minority group members pursuing careers in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics, we were acutely conscious of just how few we were. Women, of course, represented a still smaller fraction: a minority of a minority. The smallness of our numbers was in some respects a major challenge. It takes a certain "critical mass," so to speak, for members of a group to feel that they form a community that can be supportive of one another, and in the early years, it was easy to feel isolated at times. Moreover, the universities in that era were still in the process of learning that, if they wanted to reach out to minority populations, and make them a part of their institutions, their obligations did not end when the acceptance letters went into the mail.
There was another side to the coin, however. Being -- for want of a better term -- one of the "pioneers" had its very positive aspects as well. For example, I went off to college with a modest scholarship from the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. I knew that the men and women and children of that church had invested their hard-earned money in my success, and only partly because they knew me and wanted me to succeed. They also saw me as a standard-bearer for the community of that church, and as someone who might help to lower barriers for other African-Americans coming after me. I knew, therefore, that I had the support of my community behind me; and at the same time, I also knew that I had taken on some real obligations, to people I could not think of disappointing.
What I am getting at is that, in those days, with the civil rights movement at its height, it was inevitable that those of us who represented the tiny minority of African-American students in places like MIT would feel a sense of solidarity with that movement. This unquestionably was a source of strength for us, reinforcing our resolve to achieve our own goals. Thus, if we felt at times lonely and demoralized, or weighed down by others' expectations of us, we could remind ourselves that the struggle for equality was being fought on many fronts, and this was one of them. If we were taking emotional risks, we knew that there were others -- like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Medgar and Myrlie Evers -- taking risks of a more direct kind.
I do not want to minimize at all the role of personal ambition as a healthy, positive, and indeed essential success factor. None of us would have "made it" without a strong internal drive to succeed, and no one should be ashamed of wanting to succeed, and to make her or his own mark -- so long as that is not all that one cares about. In this context, I think of the famous saying of Rabbi Hillel, 2000 years ago: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I?"
As I think about the challenges that we faced three decades ago, and how they compare with what confronts students from minority groups today, it is clear that some things are easier today. I wonder, though, whether the students of today have the same sense of identification with a broader movement that helped to sustain us. That is something I would like to come back to in a little while.
Turning to the question that is central to this conference -- how to increase the number of women and minorities, specifically African-Americans, in the sciences and related fields -- we have to start by asking why the numbers remain comparatively low.
The reason is emphatically not lack of innate ability. One needs only to look around at the careers that minority group members, and women, are making, and the impact they are making, both in the sciences and in a myriad of other fields, to have no doubt, whatever, that the necessary brainpower, talent, imagination, and drive are all there. It is just that those qualities are being directed, for the most part, toward careers in business, law, education, and the social sciences. Of those who study science at the undergraduate level, many do so with the intention of going on to medical school, rather than making careers in such fields as physics, mathematics, or engineering.
Why, then, the low numbers? I would suggest several reasons, in no particular order. Obviously, education is expensive, and low-income students especially have reasons to be attracted by fields, such as law, that offer the prospect of comparatively few years in school and a rapid payoff.
The reasons are more than just economic, however. For one thing, it is only human nature that people feel more comfortable going into fields where they see others who are like them. Still, that is only part of it.
If we are honest, we will acknowledge that, in the African-American community, there is an intense need for security, probably born out of the collective experience of many generations of exclusion, discrimination, and marginalization. Making careers in science, especially in research, takes daring. All too often, I see people making choices below their capabilities because of fear -- fear of taking risks, fear of failure. Furthermore, because it is human nature not to dwell on one's own insecurities, people may be selling themselves short without even realizing it.
Finally, there is powerful social pressure to choose a career that is clearly relevant to the needs of the African-American community. I ran into this often as a student. I would be challenged, sometimes rather forcefully, to explain just how physics -- especially theoretical physics -- was relevant to the Black community.
I do not mean to imply that the argument is a frivolous one. For example, where there are social issues needing to be addressed, it is important to have lawyers capable of bringing and defending cases, and drafting needed legislation, as a way to redress societal inequities. For that reason, law has been a natural pathway for motivated black achievers. The question is whether every minority group member entering a profession should feel bound to choose a field of direct and obvious benefit to his or her group.
Incidentally, it is a little ironic that, as I travel to other countries on behalf of the NRC, I encounter as many people with advanced degrees from MIT among the officials of foreign governments, as I meet in the United States in the same period of time. Especially in the Third World, people see science and technology as the key to being players on the world stage, and when one looks at their governments, again and again one sees officials with advanced degrees, frequently in science. In the developing countries, therefore, there is no perceived contradiction between going into science, and caring about the social progress of one's people.
That leads to the next question: Is the answer different in a developed society? So long as there are pressing social problems needing to be addressed, should minority group members in a developed society apply their talents to professions that directly and obviously benefit their own groups, and leave the physics, engineering, and mathematics to others?
I would answer that several ways: first, on an individual level. Part of what makes life worth living is to have something one is interested in passionately. When a field is a calling, whatever it may be -- mathematics or African history or French literature -- one cannot turn one's back on it without forever feeling spiritually impoverished to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, what one cares about most is also likely to be what one does best. For one's own fulfillment, therefore, there is much to be said for giving great weight to what one's own heart and mind are telling him.
I also would argue that it is good for the nation, and for minority groups, that we have Native American, Hispanic, and African-American mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. I think all of us here know that the struggle against inequality and discrimination in this country is very far from over. For all the gains that have been made, there is much, much more to be done. Discrimination and racist stereotyping have not ended; rather, they continue in subtler and covert forms. One of the forms they take is the false and demeaning notion -- not necessarily articulated out loud -- that minority group members do not have what it takes for certain fields.
This also is true of discrimination against women, by the way. Ask yourself, for example, how many Fortune 500 companies have a woman as C.E.O. Why is it, one wonders, that European and Asian nations can elect a Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, or Benazir Bhutto, whereas in our own country, only one woman has even been nominated for the Vice-Presidency of the United States by a major party, and that was seen as a radical step, never repeated. It is certainly not for any lack of talented women in American life.
Just as discrimination and injustice take subtler forms in today's world, I think we need to take a more subtle view of what benefits the minority community, and combats discrimination and injustice. In my view, every African-American or Hispanic or Native American woman, or man, who makes a successful career in astrophysics or engineering, in microbiology or mathematical theory or organic chemistry, is contributing to the well-being of the community, even if the person's work does not have an immediately observable impact on the social problems of the ghetto, the barrio, or the reservation.
There are many ways to make an impact. Sooner or later, the message of a person's achievement will get through to his community, and it will be a source of pride to the elders, and of hope and opportunity to the young. The young, in particular, need to know that there is no field foreclosed to them and that they need feel inferior to no one. They need to feel that they can afford to dream, and that it is worth striving to make their dreams a reality.
Moreover, every such success sends a message to American society as a whole -- serving to break down the prejudices, spoken and unspoken, that say that minority group members lack the capability for this or that profession. When we contribute to diminishing those prejudices, we are benefiting not only the groups to which we belong, but the nation itself. The challenges facing this country, now and in the foreseeable future, are just too great for society to ignore or to undervalue the capabilities of entire groups within the population. Moreover, we all know that if we want to have a society worth living in, and worth passing on to our children and grandchildren, it will be one in which we appreciate one another as human beings for our individual qualities, instead of peering through blinders of prejudice, inherited from the past.
I mentioned earlier that when I was a student, those of us who were, so to speak, trailblazers in universities such as MIT felt a sense of identification with the civil rights movement. I think there is a place for the same kind of feeling today -- that African-American and other minority-group students who are entering fields that traditionally have been closed to them can rightly see themselves as contributing to the group as a whole. I would urge you not to be dissuaded or disheartened by those who would tell you that your work in science and related fields is irrelevant to the broader social concerns of your communities. Such advice is off the mark. The inner city and the barrio and the reservation need schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, and social workers, to be sure; but the scientists and mathematicians make their own contribution, which may be just as valuable, if one takes the long view. Moreover, there are more immediate environmental, medical and social problems, whose resolution requires strong scientific and technological input. Minority groups in this country need to appreciate this, and to be supportive of those who choose the path of science and related fields.
For those minority-group students who know that their passionate interest is in science, mathematics, or engineering, I would urge you to follow that calling. Not only is it the most likely path to your own fulfillment, it is also a way to benefit your people and your country.
If you want to be sure that you are doing something for the communities you came from, let yourself be seen. Go into the schools -- they will welcome you with open arms -- and talk to students, tell them what you yourself are doing and let them know that it is worth the effort, and worth taking the risks, to make a career in science. Nothing teaches like example. You may not know until years later, if at all, whose life you touched, whom you inspired. You can be sure, however, that every time you help young people discover that the horizons open to them are wider than they had known, you have accomplished something -- for them, for your community, for yourself, and for your country.