Meet the Scientist Who Just Broke a Major Barrier for Black Women

There are 80 black female physicists in the U.S.—here’s how one is succeeding.

Hadiyah-Nicole Green. (Photo: DailyMotion.com)

Jan 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Chemotherapy is notoriously hard on patients. It works by pumping powerful drugs into the body in hopes of killing the disease. To reduce the nasty side effects of cancer treatment, Hadiyah-Nicole Green, a 35-year-old physicist, wants to research using laser technology to kill cancer—and she just won $1.1 million to do it.

Green, an assistant professor at Tuskegee University, is the first woman to win the five-year grant geared toward nurturing black scientists from the Veterans Administration Research Scientist Training Program. She hopes to help change the perception of what black girls can aspire to.

“When someone says scientist, I want them to think of someone other than Albert Einstein,” Green told TakePart.

Green’s professional passion is inspired by her personal journey. She was raised by her aunt and uncle, who both fought cancer. Her aunt refused chemotherapy for what the family believed to be ovarian cancer and died when Green was just 22 and a recent physics graduate. Shortly afterward, her uncle was diagnosed with esophageal cancer—a disease that he fought for years before he passed away two years ago.

After her aunt’s death, Green shifted her focus from optical communications to cancer treatment. The award will enable her to explore the concept in depth and conduct trials.

“I didn’t hit a lottery. It’s very structured funding for specific purposes, and yes, I applied multiple times till I got it,” she said. That perseverance and tenacity, she said, is critical for anyone—female or male, white or black—who seeks to build a career in science.

That’s why Green is a bit flustered by her newfound fame. She just set up a Facebook account this month and already has more than 3,000 followers. Her friends, she jokes, are helping her with Twitter next. Since the award was announced, she has received countless emails from young women and, more specifically, young black women, saying that they want to become scientists like her. Having a role model—someone who looks like you—makes it seem more tangible, she said.

“When was the last time a scientist was on [a box of] Wheaties or Cheerios? And if all they see is Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, then that’s what shapes their aspirations. It’s just a lack of exposure,” Green explained.

She is among a select few. According to the National Science Foundation, there are only about 80 female black physicists in the United States.

Green doesn’t like to dwell on her race or gender in a profession traditionally dominated by white men. But the numbers indicate that there is a gap in STEM fields, namely the sciences, technology, engineering, and math. In 2012, black women earned 684 STEM degrees, and for white women, the number was 6,777. White men received 8,478 STEM degrees.

Ray Leach of JumpStart, an Ohio-based organization that helps entrepreneurs launch tech and STEM-based companies, said visibility is essential. After working with women entrepreneurs who established multimillion-dollar biotech companies, Leach is passionate about backing more women of color in the sciences.

“Increasing the number of women in STEM starts with our entire society having the chance to learn and understand the stories and motivations for these incredible women. If more people knew these stories, we would begin to make greater strides in increasing the number of women in STEM,” Leach said.

Green was personally inspired by one of her teachers, Aisha Fields, an African American woman, who told her after a calculus class that she could not only major in science, she could excel in it.

“If she hadn’t told me that, the thought would not have occurred to me,” Green said.