February 26, 2014

We all know them: the kids who sit alone at recess studying bugs; who ask for extra math homework all through middle school; who spend their high school summers taking extension classes at the local college... for fun.

Nerds. Geeks. And for some (like us), kindred spirits.

And those outsiders often grow up to do great things. They're unafraid to think beyond the constraints of daily life, not held back by things that might trip up the average rule-follower.

Acceptance at a top university can mean that these outsiders are finally on their way — and places like Harvard and MIT are meccas for them.

But for many on these campuses, the challenge isn't that easily surmounted. Especially in science and technology, women and minorities continue to be few and far between. According to data from the National Science Foundation, women make up only 24 percent of jobs in technical or STEM fields, while African-Americans and Latinos make up just 3 percent.

Back in the 1980s at MIT, the difference was even more pronounced. MIT professor and nanotechnology researcher Paula Hammond reflects on her early years in the sciences.

"One of the things that I noticed when I was an undergraduate was that there was a kind of need to position yourself or show that you were good that was unique to being a woman and being a minority at MIT. That could become tiring at times."

Today, Hammond is a nanotechnology researcher working on vaccines and cures for cancer.

"I think especially in my early years at MIT, that people would assume 'Oh, you're here because you're black; you're an affirmative action admit. I felt that there were times that that was implied and sometimes it was actually stated. And I thought, 'How could you possibly know how much I know and how qualified I am by looking at me?'"

You can hear our full conversation with MIT professor Paula Hammond in this weekend's show.

Culture, Sci and Tech

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