In honor of Black History Month, we take the opportunity to elevate the stories of black leaders in STEM from history and now to inspire the next generation of STEM trailblazers, leaders like Dr. Nicole Williams.
Dr. Nicole Williams is a member of the Project Exploration (PE) Board of Directors and the Founder and CEO of The Gynecology Institute of Chicago. Dr. Williams joined PE’s Board in 2018 as a firm believer that hands-on opportunities in science and medicine in the out-of-school time space like those of PE have the potential to transform students’ interests, leading them to develop the confidence to persist at opportunities in STEM.
Most recently, Dr. Williams shared her story with a group of high school students engaged in a Winter break program that introduced students to careers in medicine. Being able to meet a mentor like Dr. Williams, who has been a trailblazer in medicine, with black women accounting for less than 3% of U.S. doctors (Fortune, 2020) while accounting for 13% of the population of the United States (Catalyst, 2022), left strong impressions on the young people in the room.
As a physician that practices in gynecology, Dr. Williams informed students about their sexual health, answered questions about their bodies, sex, and contraceptives in a safe environment. She shared her journey through medical school and her career and inspired their own dreams. One student’s impression, “I got to meet a doctor” is such a simple, but powerful message, and a primary goal of PE’s programs. Bringing students face-to-face in an intimate setting with STEM professionals to work together on activities, ask questions and seek advice is an opportunity rarely afforded to students growing up in low-income neighborhoods like Austin. These connections and inspiration that can be sparked from these experiences are priceless. At PE, students like Tyshawn get to know careers they might otherwise not have access to like those in medicine, and work and talk in intimate settings with STEM professionals like Dr. Williams who shares similar life experiences. Knowing a doctor who is down-to-earth and relatable inspires passion and confidence – that if she could do it that they can too!
We know the barriers that often prevent people of color from getting and staying engaged in STEM are often related to structural barriers, including academic prerequisites, program fees, transportation, and a dearth of accessible opportunities in the neighborhoods where low-income students live. We also know that although students of all races enter STEM majors at roughly equal rates, black and Latino students leave the major at nearly twice the rate of white students (Educational Researcher, 2019), often reporting the switch of major due to feelings of exclusion and discrimination. Of course, STEM coursework and skills are prerequisites for admission to medical school, where students and practicing physicians still contend with these feelings and lived experiences.
PE creates spaces in which students, particularly black students and girls underrepresented in STEM, are welcomed into spaces where they have access to high-quality, fun, and approachable opportunities to experience STEM experiences, including those in medicine. In recognition that students need teachers and mentors who are reflective of them in terms of demographics and backgrounds, PE employs hiring practices that aim to ensure that PE’s leadership, staff, facilitators, and volunteers are reflective of our young people.
When students get to work alongside real-world STEM mentors like Dr. Williams, develop relationships with them, and do authentic work together, they’re more likely to develop an interest in, pursue, and persist at such opportunities.
These efforts to make STEM accessible alongside reflective mentors are working! A ten-year longitudinal study completed in 2010 by the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment at the University of California – Berkeley reveals that PE students are three times more likely to enroll in a four-year college than their peers, and over one-third of Project Exploration alumni major in science once in college. Having authentic experiences with mentors who reflect our students and demonstrate passion, expertise, and commitment creates a drive for opportunities that are too often out of reach.
You can help us reclaim the unlimited potential of these students by supporting PE with a tax-deductible donation. If you are interested in sharing your passions with PE’s young people, become a mentor and help inspire the next generation of trailblazers.
Thank you for helping honor the triumphs and struggles of black Americans during Black History month and every day.