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STEM STAR Corner: Aprille Joy Ericsson, Ph.D., NASA

 At Techbridge, one thing we hear over and over again from girls is that they want to meet real women who work in science, technology and engineering. That’s why we are as focused on helping girls build a STEM identity, confidence and a sense of belonging, as we are on giving girls hands-on experiences with cutting-edge technologies and techniques. This month, we are featuring the exceptionally relatable role model Aprille Joy Ericsson, Ph.D. Aprille is a Program Manager in the Innovative Technology Partnership Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She is a prominent advocate for involving more minorities and women in math, science and engineering, and she has won several awards for her work and outreach efforts.    

"When girls hear only the 'smooth sailing' part of a role model’s story, it can actually discourage them from pursuing STEM." 

I had the pleasure of meeting Aprille this spring at the AAUW’s launch event for their latest report on the status of women in STEM fields. The report, “Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing” asks why there are still so few women in these critical fields, and what needs to be done to make these fields more accessible and desirable for all employees. Aprille shared about her experiences as an African American woman working at NASA, and I was struck by her ability to share about her experience with confidence as well as a sense of humor. But what I found most inspiring about Aprille was her determination to focus on solutions and what is working, rather than focusing on problems and roadblocks to change.

At the AAUW event, Aprille shared her insight into what academic institutions and tech and engineering fields can do to help engage more women and girls, and address the stereotypes that keep women from advancing in these fields. Watch the entire conversation on the AAUW’s website.

Aprille first realized she had an aptitude for science and math when she was in junior high in Brooklyn, New York. Her bio states, "I spent my childhood growing up in the Bedford Styvesant neighborhood; specifically, the Roosevelt projects on Dekalb Avenue. I was bussed to the elementary school, P.S. 199 in Brooklyn. I first realized I had an aptitude for Mathematics and Science during my attendance of Marine Park JHS; there I was the only black student enrolled in the Special Progress program.”

"What’s more important to tell girls, it turns out, is how to keep going when the going gets tough." 

In high school, she attended a science and engineering program at MIT run by the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs, geared towards recruiting students of underrepresented backgrounds. During this summer program, Aprille took a field trip that changed her life. She writes, “The summer following my junior year of HS, I participated in the UNITE (now called MITE) Program. During one of the field trips that summer, I visited an Air Force Base in New Hampshire. There, I was able to sit in the control tower and fly in a flight simulator (I received a pilot’s score). UNITE was extremely instrumental in my consideration of career choices. It led me to the decision of entering the Aerospace field.” I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak to Aprille recently about her background and accomplishments. We talked about how in some cases, when girls hear only the “smooth sailing” part of a role model’s story, it can actually discourage them from pursuing STEM.

Why? Because when girls hear that women who go into STEM were “always good at science and math”, or “always knew that they’d be an engineer”, these statements actually confirm stereotypes that girls have about working in the STEM fields. What’s more important to tell girls, it turns out, is how to keep going when the going gets tough.

I asked Aprille about who her role model was as a young girl, and just like many of our Techbridge girls, Aprille talked about how much of an influence her mother was for her.

“My mother was fearless when it came to her daughters.”

There were a couple of things that my mom did, and the Girls Scouts were an influence on me as well. My mom went camping with us, and I remember the big kids running down this big, kind of dangerous hill. And my mother put us on her back and ran down that hill. My mother was fearless when it came to her daughters. While we were in school, she put herself through school. She had put off her own college career but later, she got her Masters, and she became an educator as well. She raised three daughters, one medical doctor and one Ph.D. – that’s me! I really was the first on my mother’s side to go through and finish a college degree.

“My mother was adamant when I was applying to college that my essays be reviewed by her. I didn’t know then, but my mother had taken my essays to a professor at Brooklyn College where she was working. She was adamant that my application had to be polished. Many years later I thanked my mother, and that’s when she fessed up that she had taken them to a college professor to be corrected.

I asked Aprille about what it took for her to get to MIT, and make it through their rigorous academic program. “It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I really thought I’d go into engineering. There was a minority summer program at MIT called MITES. It’s a program with a high percentage of students that go into technology or engineering field, and the majority of students going through that program also went on to attend MIT.

“So I decided kind of late to go into engineering and I had to cram a bunch of classes. I had already taken plenty of science in high school, but I decided to take physics and chemistry, physiology, biology and earth science. I also added pre-calculus, analytical geometry, and trigonometry. I took all of those before finishing high school, to get prepared for engineering in college.”

“When it came to differential equations, it was like a major road block.”

 And here comes the part that I believe is so critical for people to hear, especially girls. It turned out that Aprille’s passion for engineering, her strong identity of someone who enjoys and is good at math and science, and her vision of herself working in the engineering field, didn’t mean that the road to her engineering future would be easy. In her first year of MIT, Aprille started encountering some challenges.

“The first year, calculus was the thing I kept struggling with. I passed the class, but I had to get tutoring throughout second semester. When it came to differential equations, it was like a major road block, I couldn’t get enough of the concepts under my belt to successfully pass the course. And then I took calculus with math majors the next semester which was another mistake. I actually very much enjoyed the professor who taught it, but it was a much more artistic way of looking at math, instead of the applied way that engineers use it. And then my second year at MIT was even tougher.”

So who did Aprille turn to for help? Her advisor?  “My advisor at MIT hadn’t been very helpful, he had only met with me twice throughout the year to sign off on my classes. Then he left for the summer and my folder was just sitting on his desk. He didn’t help me or support me very much, and I ended up changing my advisor.

“But luckily Dr. Sheila Widnall, who later became my mentor, talked to me. She was a female faculty member who later became the secretary of the Air Force. And she said, “I’ve seen you do the work, you just need to be able to do it a little faster.” She said, “I don’t think you need to leave MIT, I just think you need to take off a semester to get this tool and understand it a little bit better.” So that’s how I got myself to City College in New York. I took calculus and two physics classes to satisfy the content that was being done at MIT.” Taking off that semester, instead of leaving MIT permanently, was just what Aprille needed. She got more time to practice the concepts and review the content of the courses, but more importantly, Aprille got her confidence back.

So what are Aprille’s final thoughts on digging deep and persevering? “When I’m talking to audiences around the country, I like to make them say, “I will persist until I succeed.” It’s a statement from The Greatest Salesman in the World. I make them say it like they mean it! And I also like to say, “Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll still be amongst the stars.” And in my life, when things are difficult, I think about my ancestral history of African-American women and their ability to succeed no matter what.”

We are so excited for our Techbridge girls in our new Washington, DC programs to get to meet role models like Aprille. Thank you, Aprille, for sharing your story with us, and for being a STEM STAR!




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