Self-described “science evangelist” Dr. Ainissa Ramirez, addressed a capacity crowd in the Great Hall earlier this semester as the keynote speaker for this year's Black History Month.
After earning her Ph.D. from Stanford, working at Bell Laboratories, and serving on the faculty at Yale University, Ramirez launched a career as a science educator. She’s delivered TED talks; served as science advisor to the American Film Institute, WGBH/NOVA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and several science museums; and written several books including Save Our Science, Newton’s Football, and The Alchemy of Us.
Below are a few select excerpts from her reflections on the importance of mentors, a career in science, dealing with Imposter Syndrome, and developing a can-do spirit.
Those Who Can, Teach
Ainissa Ramirez wanted to be a scientist from the age of 4, but there weren’t many scientists in the working-class Jersey City neighborhood where she grew up.
“I wanted to know why the sky was blue, why leaves changes color, why snowflakes have six sides. I was very, very curious and my path to becoming a scientist solidified in all places from a television show. Back in the day when I watched television, it was shows like Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, Star Trek with Spock, but the show that did it for me was a low-budget show on PBS called 3-2-1 Contact. The reason the show worked for me is because there was a little African American girl solving problems in this group called the Bloodhound Gang, and I saw my reflection.
“I was in a black neighborhood, and going to school in the Italian neighborhood. When I went to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, I was one of two black students. Miss Donohue, my fifth grade teacher, was this stout Irish woman, but she was geeky about science—and that was important to me because she gave me permission to love science too. That’s the power of having a role model. They reflect you. She didn’t look like me, but she was geeky in the way that I was geeky.
“Because if it weren’t for Miss Donohue, I wouldn’t have gone to St. Dominic’s, and if it weren’t for St. Dominic’s I wouldn’t have met my next teacher, Jean Marie Howard. She was a physics teacher, and she wanted to make physics fun. The other thing about Miss Howard was that she pushed me. She prodded me to be excellent. My guidance counselor was, like, ‘No, no, no,’ but Miss Howard told me, ‘I want you to go to a school as high as you can go.’
“My life is actually spotlights of different teachers. Whenever I’ve just finished writing a book, I always cite these teachers—all the way back to Miss Donohue.”
With Miss Howard’s encouragement, Ramirez applied to a range of schools—and got into Brown University, where she majored in materials science and engineering.
“When I got to Brown, I felt prepared. I was one of the top students in my high school. I had also gone to Stevens Tech, which is an engineering school, on Saturdays. I was prepared for this—I took calculus, electrical engineering. However, when I got to Brown, I found that I was sorely mistaken in terms of my preparation. The classes seemed to be designed to weed out students. In fact, the professors would say, ‘Turn to your left, turn to your right, one of you won’t be here next semester.’ And that was true. So we went from 500 to 250 and then that semester, ‘Turn to your left, turn to your right, one of you won’t be here next semester.’ They just started to whittle down and down and down.
“So I nerded out. I got a carrel in the library, I got a locker, I got tutors before tutors were even signed up for a class, and I took a class called Chemistry 21T, the tutorial version with Miss Eldegard Morris, who did the same material—at a slower pace. Again, another teacher who saved me.”
“I fell in love with the field called material science. The professor said—I think just parenthetically—‘The reason why I don’t fall through the floor, the reason why my jacket is blue, and the reason why the lights work, all have to do with the interaction of atoms and if you can figure out how they do that, you can get them to do new things.’ When he said that, I started looking around—I looked at my pencil—and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s it. This guy is making the whole world make sense to me. This is fantastic. I don’t know what this material science thing is, but I have to pursue it.' I loved it so much that I decided I needed to learn about it. So I went to Stanford.
From grammar school to the Ph.D. program at Stanford University, Ramirez searched for scientists who looked like her—role models. Then, she landed at Bell Laboratories.
“As a child, I had had role models who were African American, but they were all in books. I knew about George Washington Carver. People talk about his cultivating the peanut; what he was actually trying to do was to restore land that was very barren and also trying to feed people at the same time. I knew about Madame C.J. Walker. She was a chemist who made curly hair straight and straight hair curly—that’s chemistry. She was the first self-made woman millionaire, not just black women but all women. She was Oprah before Oprah. I also knew about Garrett Morgan. He also created this crazy thing called the stoplight. Every time I see a stoplight, I see a black scientist, a black inventor. You see 'oh man it’s red.' I see 'Genius'.”
“When I got to Stanford, I thought it was going to be more of the same—but it was just such an intense pace, I needed to discover a support system. I was succumbing to Imposter Syndrome, where you feel like you’re a fraud. I was starting to feel that I didn’t belong, to feel that I wasn’t good enough, and so that’s the reason why I needed a support system. It’s a beautiful thing to have. Particularly if you’re, as Shonda Rhymes said, first, only, or different. I was first-generation to go, I was definitely the only African American, and I’m definitely different because I was better-looking than most of the other people around me. So what I had to do is, what I had to figure out is, how am I going to survive?”
“I loved Bell Laboratories. There was a Nobel Laureate who was in the hallway across from me. This was like being a kid in a candy store. Also for the first time since 3-2-1 Contact, I saw my reflection because Bell Labs had a long history of hiring black scientists: Shirley Jackson, who was a theoretical physicist and went on to be president of Rensselaer, and Jim West, who made the microphone in your cellphone. I was in an environment where I saw people who looked like me. I soared when I was there. I had a couple of patents, I was writing papers, I was on the fast track to distinguished of staff. I was definitely on my way there.”
With the telecom crash, Ramirez found herself hustling for her next job. She landed at Yale University’s Mechanical and Materials Science Department, and although lured by her love of research, discovered a different passion.
“Something exciting happened for me in academia. I was writing a grant, and one of the stipulations is to do outreach and science communication—teaching the public about your research. So I created Science Saturdays, a program where scientists talked 30 minutes or so about their research. It wouldn’t be jargon-y. It would be down to earth. And when I was doing this program, I was on fire. Very young kids would show up and, after a couple of years, I saw them grow and love science. One student who had dropped out of college came to a Science Saturdays program, and he wrote me a letter that said, 'I dropped out, I went to your Science Saturdays talk on marine biology, and I’m now taking a marine biology class.' It felt very, very satisfying, and I said, this is the thing that I really really love—just encouraging people, inspiring people to get back in touch with their inner scientist.
“So I started a new career as a science evangelist. I made some 3-minute videos explaining different scientific principles. I made a series called Material Marvels and put it on iTunes. I wasn’t really certain about what I was doing, and one day, I got a message from TED that said, 'We really like your videos. We’d like you to come and give a talk.' Once I did that TED talk, someone said, 'Would you like to write a book about that?' So I wrote a book on how to make people get excited about science; it’s called Save Our Science.
“I kept doing a couple more videos. This editor came and said, ‘Hey, you did a video on football. Would you like to write a book about football?’ So I wrote Newton’s Football. (My brothers are football fans—I live with my youngest brother—and I would be on the phone talking to these greats. ‘Hey, today I talked to this guy, Jerry Rice. Do you know who he is?’ He’s like, ‘Why do you have this job?’)”
“My path wouldn’t have happened if I had bought into can’t. I had heard can’t said directly to me, and it was also said behind me. ‘You can’t go to Brown. Nobody from our school goes to Brown.’ ‘You can’t get a Ph.D. at Stanford. There are no black girls that get Ph.D.s. in material science.’ ‘You can’t write a book. Nobody does that.’ ‘You can’t be a professor at Yale. Everybody here is male, pale, and went to Yale. You can’t do that.’
“When I was very small, I asked my mom about the word can’t, and she said, it’s not in the dictionary. I went to the dictionary, and I saw it there. I was very confused. But what she was trying to get across to me is that it’s not in your dictionary.”