(Rock Hill, S.C.) — STEM career fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — have long had difficulty attracting women, especially women of color.
For example, Forbes reported that women held just a quarter of the 5 million tech jobs in 2015 and women of color, especially African-Americans and Hispanics, represented less than 10 percent of those positions, according to the nonprofit Computing Technology Industry Association.
Additionally, only 2.9 percent of black women, 3.6 percent of Latinas and 4.8 of Asian women earn STEM degrees in the U.S.
This is also an issue at Winthrop University, despite the school’s efforts to promote diversity among its faculty.
The College of Arts and Sciences is the largest and most diverse academic college at Winthrop, according to the school’s website.
However, there are only two African-American women among the faculty in Arts and Sciences — which includes programs in biology, chemistry, geology and physics — according to Dr. Takita Sumter, dean of the college. There is also a female physicist from Africa.
Sumter, who was named dean in July, is also a professor of chemistry and one of those few women of color among the science faculty.
“We typically are pretty short on our women in STEM. We really have a hard time attracting those faculty to our programs because there really aren’t that many to choose from,” said Sumter.
She said the last time she looked at statistics for people of color in STEM fields who held a doctorate degree, the number was at less than 1 percent.
Sumter said efforts to attract women of color to STEM fields should start as early as middle school.
“Usually kids make decisions about what they’re going to be and what their shortcomings are usually between 11 and 13. By the time you get to high school you’ve decided either I’m going to be a doctor or I’m going to be this or I’m going to be that, but you’ve definitely decided what you aren’t going to do,” she said.
Dr. LaShardai Brown, an associate professor of biology and the second African-American woman in the College of Arts and Sciences, is in her first-year at Winthrop.
Brown said she only encountered one African-American professor while she was completing her graduate degree.
“You can imagine going to MUSC (the Medical University of South Carolina) where there’s thousands of students attending and having one person to look like you. That is pretty rough,” Brown said. “Going through that was tough, but I found ways to cope by finding support systems amongst my peers and amongst other people who were a little further ahead of me.”
Brown, who is trained as a cellular biologist, said an interest in learning about how the human body works is what drew her to biology.
“I really like interacting with people and I love when students get to that ‘aha’ moment and they actually help me to get to the ‘aha’ moment as well,” she said.
Brown said Winthrop, with its diverse student population, is a place where she can mentor students who look like her, in an effort to attract more people of color to the STEM fields.
Sumter said her interest in science was influenced by a relative who was a chemist, but it wasn’t until her third year of college that she chose chemistry for her career path.
She went straight into graduate school at the University of South Carolina after obtaining her undergraduate degree in chemistry, where she studied medicinal chemistry and ultimately settled on biochemistry after she published a couple of research papers.
While working a post-doctorate fellowship, in pediatric oncology at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine, she realized she enjoyed working with students in the lab, which started her journey to Winthrop.
“I started to look for a job that would give me the opportunity to do research, but do it with students and so Winthrop, at the time, happened to be launching a molecular biomedical research initiative,” Sumter said.
The initiative, which partnered with the University of South Carolina, allowed Sumter to work closely with students to publish research.
“I think that has been the most fun part. The bonus work has been teaching, because you can kind of identify students who don’t expect to love chemistry and then you bring them into the lab and they realize that they do love chemistry, so that has been kind of fun,” she said.
While Sumter couldn’t recall encountering any people of color among the faculty during her graduate work, she said she was fortunate to have professors who took an interest in her and provided support.
“My Ph.D. advisor actually told me ‘Takita if you get this degree you will be able to write your own ticket,'” she said. “So every position that I’ve negotiated he’s kind of coached me through and reminded me, you know, not to just accept what they offer, (but) to ask for more.”
There were times when both Sumter and Brown said they felt out of place during their studies, but they never let it discourage them.
Sumter said she experienced what is known as “impostor syndrome,” which is defined as a feeling of inadequacy that persists despite evident success. Thus, the “impostors” suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence.
“You kind of feel like at some point these people are going to figure out that I don’t deserve to be here. At some point I think I thought it was true,” she said. “You kind of accept it for what it is. You own it, because you use it to inspire you and you just deal with it.”
However, Sumter said a friend, who was a fellow graduate student, encouraged her to believe that she could not fail, because it might make it more difficult for other women of color to succeed in the sciences.
In the past few years, Winthrop has tried to increase the number of students who pursue doctorate degrees.
For example, Sumter started a program, before she became dean, which works with students pursuing STEM degrees who come from underserved communities.
“We take chemistry, biology, exercise science, computer science and math majors from underserved populations — that could be low income, it could be minority, it could be first generation (students) — and we offer a bridge, so they come to campus for six weeks, for boot camp and they take two (STEM) classes,” she said.
The program puts students on a schedule, prior to enrollment, which is designed to help students understand what it takes to survive at Winthrop. The students are then sent home for vacation after the six weeks and when they return in the fall their grades are monitored every two weeks.
“About 92 percent of those students that we’ve served over the past nine years have stayed at Winthrop and completed a degree,” she said.
Students at Winthrop are also encouraged to conduct undergraduate research, as early as their sophomore year, and participate in national conferences.
“We’ve had a number of students who’ve gone on to do doctorates — either M.D.s, Ph.D.s, doctor of physical therapy — and they’ve won national awards,” Sumter said.
Next fall, the College of Arts and Sciences plans to bring back an alumna from the class of 1997 to demonstrate to students what the path toward earning a doctorate degree looks like.
She is an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota who obtained an undergraduate degree in biology from Winthrop.
Sumter said her success makes her a great candidate to come back to Winthrop and speak to students about earning a doctorate.