THE FIRST woman from the Caribbean region to earn a PhD in aerospace engineering has spoken of her hopes to see more young black females enter the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) field.
Dr Liselle Joseph, who grew up in Grenada, recently earned her doctorate from Virginia Tech College of Engineering in the US, where she also studied at undergraduate level.
Prior to graduating Dr Joseph worked on major projects for leading organisations such as NASA, General Electric, the US Navy and America’s National Science Foundation.
But following her success, which some observers say will help to put STEM in the Caribbean on the international map, Dr Joseph says one of her greatest hopes is that other young women will follow in her path.
She said: “Personally, my most rewarding experience has been mentoring younger students, especially minority and women engineers.”
She added: “I chose engineering without thinking about these obstacles facing women in STEM. I simply followed my curiosity. I never paid much attention to people who said, ‘Girls don’t do this and that’.
“Being a woman, but also black and an immigrant in the USA all comes together to make things difficult at times. But don’t let everyone’s opinion sway or pressure you into choosing a field of study that is not in line with what you want. In the end it is your career and life, and you are the one who needs to be fulfilled.”
Speaking about some of the obstacles she has faced, Dr Joseph said: “My challenges have ranged from being assigned to book rooms for my senior design group despite having the highest grade point average in the group, to people walking into a meeting and on seeing me assume that I work in HR, when the truth is I have a PhD and I am actually the engineer leading the project.
“Today people make more of an effort to catch their prejudices before they affect me, but when things are said/done that can possibly affect my career and development, I speak up.”
She continued: “For example, in that senior design group where I was supposed to just book rooms like a secretary, I ended up leading the aerodynamics team and getting us to a great A+ design.
“Even today at work, sometimes men talk over me or try to explain my own work to me, and in those cases I just recognise this is unconscious bias and assert myself. I don’t think I would have gotten this far if I listened to voices other than my own, or if I kept silent.”
And giving advice to young women considering entering the STEM eld but who may be doubtful, she said: “Find a mentor and build your network. Whenever you meet someone who has great experience and success, introduce yourself, keep in contact with them and keep asking questions.
“I won’t pretend this is easy, since most girls are conditioned to be quiet and non- intrusive or to think ‘who am I to talk to this person?’ But be brave and ask for what you want. My mentors have always been people who are in positions I want to be in.
That way they can tell me how they got there. By the same token, remove negative people who have limited world views from your network, unless that is what you want to be.
“Also, research. Think about the most inspiring person or persons you have ever heard of and look into their life. In almost all cases, they had very humble beginnings and they failed several times first.
“The more you realise that these are people just like you, the more you will realise that you, too, can do great things for the world.”
As a young girl growing up in Grenada, Dr Joseph always knew she’d eventually pursue an education in the sciences.
Excelling academically at primary and secondary school paved the way for her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech Engineering College where she also won a number of prestigious academic awards.
However she adds “essentially, it should never be about the title (degree or job or otherwise) but instead about what interests a person and sparks their curiosity”.
Asked about her future goals Dr Joseph said: “If you asked me this 10 years ago, I would have said I wanted the highest of degrees and a great job in engineering. Today, my goal is just to work on exciting and innovative technologies.
“That is a bit abstract but that is my true goal. I don’t care about being a CEO or executive or any specific job title or working at a specific company/ institution.
“My life goal is to continue to contribute to the fundamental understanding of aerodynamics in Aerospace Engineering, and shed light on the toughest problems we are facing.”