Spotlight: African American Scientists


Sponsored by Delta SEE
Science and Everyday Experiences Initiative

Science and Everyday Experiences

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority

Delta Research and Educational Foundation

National Science Foundation

Spotlight on African American Scientists image spacer gif Since Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver left their marks on American science, African Americans have made great strides as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and inventors. It’s a story of success in the face of great odds in a racist society. However, there’s still much room for progress, because even today blacks are sorely underrepresented as science students, teachers, and professionals. Here you can hear the voices of just a few of the black scientists who are living and working in North America today—and helping to pave the way for those who will follow.

Photo Credit: Will Kirk

James West

Acoustician and Inventor
Johns Hopkins University

Jim West was born in 1931 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and studied physics at Temple University, much to the displeasure of his parents, who wanted him to become a doctor. “My father introduced me to three black men who had earned doctorates in chemistry and physics,” says West. “The best jobs they could find were at the post office. My father said I was taking the long road toward working at the post office.”

Specializing in microphones, West went on to author 200 patents. In 1962, with Gerhard Sessler, West developed the foil electret microphone. Recently, after a distinguished 40-year career, including stints at Lucent Technologies and as a Bell Laboratories Fellow, West moved to Johns Hopkins University where he is a research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. West also founded the Association of Black Laboratory Employees.

Hospital Noise

November 30, 2005

A hospital room is the last place you’d expect to get some rest–overhead pages and beeping instruments keep patients up all night. And the problem is only getting worse.


Sound Laser

November 22, 2005

One listener asks: Can sound be directed into a beam, like a laser? The answer might surprise you.


Photo Credit:
Smithsonian Institution

Lisa Stevens

Giant Panda Curator
National Zoo

Lisa Stevens became a familiar face (and voice) in 2005 when panda cub Tai Shan was born at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. As manager of the giant panda program for the past 20 years, she often spoke to the public and to media about how the little ball of furry cuteness was faring. Before joining the zoo’s staff, she held positions as a field research assistant, in pet and aquarium retail, veterinary clinic operations, insect zoo husbandry and interpretation, and riding stable management (she’s an avid rider and horse owner). She has a bachelor’s degree in zoology and pre-veterinary medicine from Michigan State University and attended the AZA School for Professional Management Development for Zoo and Aquarium Personnel.

Panda Raising

December 28, 2005

How is the National Zoo making sure its panda cub will grow into a healthy, happy adult?


Photo Credit: NASA

Aprille Ericsson

Aerospace Engineer

Aprille Ericsson was the first female (and the first African-American female) to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University and the first African-American female to receive a Ph.D. in Engineering at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She was born and raised in the Bedford Styvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and earned her bachelor’s in aeronautical/astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a NASA engineer, Ericsson has worked on many projects, including the Microwave Anisotropy Probe, the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, and in the Integrated Mission Design Center. Currently she is the instrument manager for a proposed mission to bring dust from the Martian lower atmosphere back to Earth.

Ericsson has won many awards, including the 1997 “Women in Science and Engineering” award for the best female engineer in the federal government, and has been profiled by NBC Nightly News, Essence Magazine, and other media outlets. She is a member of the NASA GSFC Speakers Bureau and the Women of NASA Group. Ericsson also teaches at Howard University at the collegiate and middle school level and is a member of their Board of Trustees.

Air in Space

January 3, 2006

Even astronauts’ waste water is put to work in the extreme environment of space.


Photo Credit:
The National Science Board

Warren Washington

Atmospheric Scientist
National Center for Atmospheric Research

Warren Washington helped pioneer the field of atmospheric computer modeling. Born in Portland, Oregon, Washington earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in meteorology from Oregon State University. After completing his doctorate in meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, he joined the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, in 1963. There, he specialized in computer modeling of the earth’s climate and has helped foster awareness of global climate change. Now, Washington is a senior scientist and head of the Climate Change Research Section in the Climate and Global Dynamics Division at the NCAR.

Washington has served on the President’s National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere and the National Science Board. He has won many awards, including the Dr. Charles Anderson Award from the American Meteorological Society “for pioneering efforts as a mentor and passionate support of individuals, educational programs, and outreach initiatives designed to foster a diverse population of atmospheric scientists.” He has published more than 100 papers in professional journals, and his book, An Introduction to Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling (co-authored with NASA’s Claire Parkinson) is a reference on climate modeling.

Melting Ice Caps

August 15, 2006

Will global warming ever advance beyond repair?


Photo Credit: Ken Jones

Maydianne Andrade

Evolutionary Biologist
University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus

Maydianne Andrade has the enviable job of studying cannibalistic spiders. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated with her parents to Vancouver, Canada, when she was 3 years old. She earned a BSc from Simon Fraser University and an MSc at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. She then moved to the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University from which she received a PhD in 2000. She is now Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, where she uses her spiders as models for understanding the evolution of mating behavior.

Andrade was picked to be one of Popular Science magazine’s 2005 Brilliant 10. She has also been the recipient of the Outstanding New Investigator Award (Animal Behavior Society), the Pitelka Award for Excellence in Research (International Society for Behavioral Ecology), and a Premier’s Research Excellence Award (Government on Ontario).

Munching Mates

January 16, 2006

Many fathers in the animal kingdom are deadbeat dads by human standards. But redback spider dads are just plain dead.


Photo Credit:
University of California, Davis

William M. Jackson

University of California at Davis

William Jackson is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Chemistry Department of University of California, Davis. He has spent more than 40 years studying the chemistry of comets. He developed the use of tunable dye lasers to probe the fragments produced when light is absorbed by molecules in the laboratory. Many of these molecules that he has studied are thought to produce the same fragments in comets and in the ozone layer of the stratosphere. He led the international research team that was the first to use the telescope in the IUE (International Ultraviolet Explorer) satellite to observe comets. He still continues to study comets both in his laboratory and through various observations of them with national telescopes.

Before moving to the University of California at Davis, he taught at Howard University and worked at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, received a Humboldt Senior Research Award, the AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award, and is Fellow of the American Physical Society as well as a Fellow of the AAAS. He earned his BS from Morehouse College in 1956 and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America in 1961. Jackson was a founder of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. Throughout his career he has actively championed programs to increase the number of African Americans and women in science and engineering and has successfully lobbied for legislation that was funded for these purposes.

Comet Extinction

March 28, 2006

A podcast listener asks about the end of comets’ lives.


Photo Credit:
Baylor College of Medicine

Oluyinka O. Olutoye

Pediatric Surgeon
Baylor College of Medicine

Dr. Olutoye is Associate Professor of Pediatric Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine and Co-Director of the Texas Children’s Fetal Center. He performs fetal surgeries and also conducts his own research. One of his research interests is how wounds heal. In particular, he’s interested in the way fetuses manage to heal themselves without generating scar tissue. He hopes that understanding this fetal healing process will help scientists develop new therapies for adults—especially people who have trouble healing or who develop too much scar tissue.

Dr. Olutoye attended medical school in his home country of Nigeria. He then moved to the United States to pursue further surgical training and a Ph.D. in Anatomy at the Virginia Commonwealth University. He will continue to travel the world as a James IV Association of Surgeons 2007 Traveling Scholar, an honor that will allow him to exchange ideas with surgeons in Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, Vietnam and Australia.

Negative Pressure

June 14, 2007

Vacuums don’t only clean carpets. They can help wounds heal, too.


UCLA Medical Center

Bruce Ovbiagele

University of California, Los Angeles

Bruce Ovbiagele, a vascular neurologist, is assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Among other responsibilities, Ovbiagele directs the UCLA PROTECT program, which helps hospitals provide the highest-quality stroke treatment to patients. He is a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association’s “Power to End Stroke” campaign.

Born in Nigeria, Ovbiagele came to the United States in 1995 to pursue specialist training in stroke, the second-leading killer of Africans and the single most deadly neurological disease. He plans to return to Nigeria to set up stroke centers. “Given the dearth of resources in this region, the main emphasis will be on preventive therapies and public education,” he says. He also hopes to help train new African doctors and medical researchers.

Calcium and Stroke

April 27, 2006

Everyone knows that calcium helps build and maintain strong and healthy bones. But it also has positive effects on the brain.


Photo Credit: Howard University

Agnes Day

Howard University

Agnes A. Day grew up in Florida, the youngest of 13 children in a poor family. Day’s third-grade teacher recognized her intelligence and invited young Agnes to come live with her, where she encouraged her curiosity and put her “on the path of achieving.”

Day received her BS in biology from Bethune-Cookman College in Florida in 1974 and her PhD in microbiology from Howard University in 1984. Day then spent several years in the National Institute of Dental Research, after which she returned to Howard University, where she is currently an associate professor and chairman of the Department of Microbiology in the College of Medicine. Her research interests are drug resistance in fungi, bone and connective tissue diseases, animal models of breast cancer, and the genetics of breast cancer in African American women.

She was awarded the Outstanding Research Award and the Kaiser-Permanente Outstanding Teaching Award by the Howard University College of Medicine. She has served on the Committee on Diversity of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and as a consultant for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Black Churches-Black Colleges Program and the Minority Science Network (MiSciNet) database initiative.

Alcohol and Colds

June 22, 2006

We answer this listener’s question: Can a shot of alcohol stop a cold in its tracks?



May 30, 2006

What do beer and vaccines have in common?


Cells Alive

May 11, 2006

You probably have heard that hair is made up of dead cells. But are living cells really "alive"?


Photo Credit: Estella Atekwana

Estella Atekwana

Oklahoma State University

Estella Atekwana grew up in Cameroon. “My parents very much wanted me to do medicine,” she writes. “So I got into sciences with that intention. However, I took a course in geology in high school and the teacher indicated that geology was not for girls. I was challenged then to demonstrate that girls could do geology and perform the same as boys or even better. I ended up with the science award that year in chemistry, biology, and geology.” She moved to North America to study the geosciences, earning a bachelor’s and master’s in geology from Howard University and a Ph.D. from Dalhousie University in Canada. “Today, they call me Doctor and that’s fine with my parents.”

She is now Sun Chair at Oklahoma State University, where she is a leader in the new field of biogeophysics.

The Microbes Below

June 13, 2006

To study underground bacteria, scientists have been pretty much just digging holes. Until now.



Shaundra B. Daily

Doctoral Student
MIT Media Lab

Shaundra B. Daily was born in 1979 in Nashville, Tennessee. In high school, an interest in being an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation led her to major in electrical engineering at Florida State University. But, she writes, “once I got to college, I realized that while the FBI was fascinating, what I really enjoyed was working with kids using technology.” After graduating with honors, she received a master’s in electrical engineering and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She is now a doctoral candidate at the MIT Media Laboratory working in the Affective Computing Group. This group seeks to “give machines skills of emotional intelligence … and … to develop technologies to assist in the development of human emotional intelligence.” Her main interests include interfaces that support affective (that is, emotional) development and technologically supported reflective practice. “Most importantly,” she writes, “I am the proud wife of Julian and mother to Layla.”

Feeling Machine

July 24, 2006

A new computer program addresses teenage girls’ emotional needs



April Savoy

Doctoral Student, Industrial Engineering
Purdue University

April Savoy grew up in a small town in southwestern Louisiana, “where Creole was our first language and cooking our trademark.” She excelled in school, graduating from high school as valedictorian and then earning a perfect grade point average at Xavier University as a computer science major. “The elders of the family assured us, my cousins and I, that we would have endless opportunities to be whatever we wanted,” she writes. “I was constantly told that I could grow up to be a doctor or a computer professional. Funny, my current career path has me becoming both with a doctorate in Human Computer Interaction.” She expects to earn her Ph.D. from Purdue University’s School of Industrial Engineering in 2007.

Savoy’s areas of interest include information design, applied ergonomics, pervasive computing, and assistive technology. Above all, she writes, “I recognize my responsibility as an engineer to make the world a better place by using new technology to solve the neglected simple problems…My aim is to bridge the gap of the digital divide and provide technology to those that need it.” Savoy is a David and Lucille Packard Fellow and a Compaq Fellow.

Gaming Information

August 7, 2006

Video games are chock full of information–story lines, character traits, and maps, to name a few. But is it all getting across to players?



Stephon Alexander

Penn State University

Stephon Alexander was born on the southern coast of Trinidad and Tobago and moved to the Bronx in New York when he was eight. His interest in physics started four years later when his father brought home a used computer. In his quest to learn how it worked, he “discovered the words ‘Quantum Mechanics.’ Although I was mystified by the equations,” he says, “I got hooked.”

Quantum mechanics is now a part of Alexander’s daily life as an assistant professor of physics, astronomy, and astrophysics at Penn State University. His research explores the interface between fundamental physics and cosmology, and in particular addresses questions about the early universe. He plays the saxophone, and his passion for improvisational Jazz influences his work.

Changing Physics

November 28, 2006

A listener asks: Was physics different when the universe was young?