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Spotlighting Black Excellence in Science: 5 of the World’s Most Influential Black Scientists

Spotlighting Black Excellence in Science: 5 of the World’s Most Influential Black Scientists

February is full of celebrations in the science world, but none are more important than celebrating the contributions of our world’s black scientists. Data shows that people of color are underrepresented in the sciences. In order to correct this by encouraging people of color to follow their passions in fields of science, it’s important to recognize black scientists not just during February but in each month across all platforms so that our children and students can see themselves in the evolution of science as evidenced by the paths of others like them.

This February, we’re highlighting black scientists in five branches of science: computer science, engineering—specifically aerospace engineering—physics, mathematics, and psychology. Of course, the people honored here represent only a minute fraction of the black scientists that have shaped our understanding of the world in powerful ways.

© An Rong Xu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Computer Science

Lisa Gelobter, computer scientist, is one of the first 40 Black women ever to have raised over $1mm in venture capital funding. After working with the Obama administration serving as the Chief Digital Services Officer for the Department of Education, Gelobter founded tEQuitable, a platform that operates as a confidential sounding board for employees to address issues of bias, discrimination, and harassment, encouraging the growth of places of employment toward inclusivity.

Gelobter graduated from Brown University in 1991 at the age of 20 with a degree in computer science and a focus in artificial intelligence and machine learning. She then began work on several innovations in the internet technology sector such as Shockwave, a multimedia gaming platform and the online streaming service Hulu. Check out her webpage on Wikipedia here.

Aerospace Engineering

A quick Google search of Lonnie Johnson, aerospace engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur, reveals one of Johnson’s more popular accomplishments: inventing the Super Soaker. Johnson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2022 for the best-selling toy, which he conceived while working on a heat pump idea in his bathroom. As you might imagine, Johnson first explored his interest in how things are put together as a child, dismantling his sister’s doll and building a go-cart out of scraps.

Johnson, who holds more than 100 US patents, attended Tuskegee University, where he completed a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. From there, Johnson worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the US Air Force (where he helped develop the stealth bomber program). He returned to the Air Force after being hired to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Johnson’s key to success? “Be tenacious.


Image credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Jackson was the first African American woman to earn a PhD from MIT (after having earned her bachelor’s there as well). Jackson began her illustrious career working as a theoretical physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), after which Jackson put her successful research in theoretical physics to use at Bell Laboratories where she contributed to the invention of the portable fax, touch-tone telephone, fiber optic cables, and many other technological innovations that are responsible for the ease of communication we enjoy today. Taken directly from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute website, the opening of Shirley Ann Jackson’s biography as RPI’s president clearly states her contribution to the world of research not only as an individual but in terms of her influence on the future of the field: “Rankings for Rensselaer among national universities have risen substantially under Dr. Jackson's tenure, and the number of students applying to join the freshman class has tripled.”

© Adrian Cadiz


Gladys West’s work in mathematics contributed directly to the development and implementation of the Global Positioning System. Born in 1930 in rural Virginia, West followed her desire to explore work beyond the farm her family worked, using education as the springboard. West was attracted to science and math as a way to set her apart from other students who tended toward study in other areas.

In 1956, West was hired at the US Naval Weapons Laboratory, an early forerunner to Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. She was the second black woman hired at the lab and one of only four black employees. Her first role at Dahlgren as a mathematician involved verifying range and bombing tables. West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018, one of the highest honors bestowed by Air Force Space Command.


Photo credit: Kay Hinton

Ever wonder why people love scary movies, fast cars, and other adrenaline-pumping activities? Psychologist Ken Carter has made researching the answer to this question his life’s work. Currently the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, Carter is a graduate of Oxford College and Emory University and received an MA and PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan. Before joining Emory University, Carter worked at the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service researching smoking as a marker for suicidal behavior in adolescents. 

More recently, Carter’s recent book, Buzz!: Inside the Minds of Thrill-Seekers, Daredevils, and Adrenaline Junkies, allows those of us without PhDs in psychology to dip our toes into understanding folks who are labeled “high sensation seeking,” or HSS. Carter’s research into people’s perception of and experience with risk has gotten him tapped into current conversation surrounding society’s willingness to re-engage with public activity as the COVID-19 pandemic has changed over the past few years.

Interested to know if you’re HSS? Check out Carter’s quiz here!

Our Future Needs You!

Clearly, the work of black scientists has been not only paramount to our current enjoyment of today’s world but is key to our future. To help students see themselves with a future in STEM and to broaden their understanding of science history, it’s important for them to learn about a diverse range of scientists and engineers. We encourage teachers and others in positions of influence to share resources that reflect the diversity responsible for the spectacular range of talent that allows our development in the sciences to continue.

To Learn More, Check Out These Resources!

Check out the links to resources included in this article, listed below in order of appearance:

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), National Science Foundation.

Coen, R. (2020, September 19). Lisa Gelobter (1971- ). Black Past.

Black Women Who Changed Our World. US Embassy and Consulates in Italy. 

Lisa Gelobter. Wikipedia.

Lonnie Johnson. (2015, December 2). Biography. 

Lonnie Johnson. National inventors Hall of Fame.

Prokes, B. (2018, July 6). Former NASA Engineer and Inventor of Super Soaker Speaks on Power of Perseverance. Lonnie Johnson.

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. Biography. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Shirley Ann Jackson. 

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson. Featured Inventors, Famous Black Inventors. 

Butterly, A. (2018, May 20). 100 Women: Gladys West—The “Hidden Figure” of GPS. BBC News.

Meet The Navy’s GPS Pioneer Dr. Gladys West. (2021, February 12). gCaptain. 

Kenneth Carter. Emory | Oxford College.

Carter, K. (2019). Buzz!: Inside the Minds of Thrill-Seekers, Daredevils, and Adrenaline Junkies.

Justice, E. (2014, May 7). Are You a Thrill Seeker or a Chill Seeker? Join a Psychologist's Survey. eScienceCommons. Emory University.

Wu, K. J. (2021, April 29). Post-Vaccination Inertia Is Real. The Atlantic.

Carter, K. Thrill Seeker or Chill seeker? Take This Test to Find Out WHY.

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