When Evelynn Hammonds was growing up in the 1960s, the popular image of a black woman in science was Lieutenant Uhura, the multilingual communications director on the USS Enterprise on “Star Trek.” Off-screen models were few.
A generation later, Hammonds — a Harvard professor who specializes in the history of science and African-American studies — hopes to take on one of the most intractable problems in academia: the severe shortage of women and people of color in science, technology, and medicine. It’s both an old problem, and one that hasn’t improved all that much in the years since it was recognized as a problem. It’s well-documented, but poorly addressed.
“We’re not getting any closer to being represented in significant numbers,” Hammonds said.
Hammonds is launching a new initiative to boost the participation of women and people of color in science. Her unnamed program hopes to offer support to students that is missing now, while attacking institutional barriers that frustrate many nontraditional science students.
She came to her awareness relatively late. She was a college student in Atlanta, enrolled in a dual-degree program at Spelman College and Georgia Tech when she got the idea of becoming a scientist. A friend told her: “There are no black women scientists.” Hammonds marched to the Spelman library, demanded to see what it had on black women scientists. The answer, she was told, was nothing. She may as well have been speaking a foreign language herself.
Now, she says, programs to increase diversity often take the form of exposing students, the younger the better, to science. But no one really knows whether such programs really work.
“People think it’s fine to bring kids together for the summer and let them get their hands on things and do cool things,” she said. “But what does that actually do? What does it actually accomplish? And if students come out of it excited, what do we do with that excitement?”
To her, the key to changing the face of science lies in better math and science education for primary school students, and more effective mentoring for college students. Many, she says, fall by the wayside simply for lack of direction.
“Science is a kind of social reproduction system,” Hammonds said. “You kind of get connected to someone who believes in you and it can help you realize your talent you can go anywhere and do anything.”
There’s no way to sugarcoat Hammonds’s return to the faculty, and no need to. She stepped down as dean of Harvard College this year after a campus cheating scandal. After a group of students were implicated in cheating on a take-home test, Hammonds led a search into the e-mails of a group of resident deans. Campus critics, of which there were many, assailed the searches. Hammonds says her interest was protecting the privacy of the students involved.
“I am just going to say it’s very complex,” she said last week. “It’s very serious and there were a lot of people involved in the decisions that were made. The last thing I will say is that everybody involved was really working to protect the privacy of students throughout.”
So she’s not a dean anymore. Instead she is a full professor who wants to spend the rest of her career kicking down a few doors. She frames the need for more diversity in science as a national imperative. Everyone, she says, has to be part of the knowledge-based economy.
“We cannot afford to waste that talent,” she said “We could never afford it, but we really can’t afford it anymore. I’ve sat on enough committees, I’ve been to enough meetings. Now I’d really like to get the work done.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.