By Kim Atwater | November 2022
In many educational facilities, math and science enthusiasts, technology proponents, roundtables, venture capitalists, angel investors, grant and scholarship procurer, the buzz word is STEM! So, what is STEM? STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The importance of STEM is exemplified as the world innovates and advances in technology. The U.S. Bureau of Labor recognizes the importance of these unique industries and believes they will be significant for years to come. And according to Bestcolleges.com, The need for professionals who understand how these technologies work and who can propose practical solutions continues to grow Celebrity Boss Magazine sat down to have a conversation with an accomplished professional whom we have deemed a celebrity boss in STEM, and have her share her story. Dr. Sybrina Atwaters is the Director of The Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED) at Georgia Tech. OMED is a unit within Georgia Tech’s Institute Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion. OMED was established in 1979 and was one of the first departments (not a student run organization) established by Georgia Tech, to address the needs and concerns of underrepresented students, as well as serve as liaison to the administration.
Q1: What exactly is your role as Director of OMED?
A: I lead a team of diverse professionals, programs, initiatives, and research agendas aimed at enhancing the retention, advocacy, scholarship, and holistic development of traditionally underrepresented students: African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Multiracial.
Q2: Please share your background?
A: I am a native of Atlanta, educated through the Atlanta Public School system, becoming the first salutatorian of Alonzo A. Crim High School. I earned my B.S. in electrical engineering (1994), and my master's of science (2009) in the history and sociology of technology science, and Ph.D. (2014) from Georgia Tech. I also earned my master's degree in theological studies (MTS) from Emory University and a master’s of science (M.S.) in Instructional Technology from Georgia State University. Prior to serving as director (and assistant director) of OMED, I held various faculty, research, engineering, and consulting roles. In addition, I served on the Radio Frequency wireless design team for AT&T wireless (formerly Bellsouth Mobility) for 9 years, including during the 1996 Olympic games. I was responsible for much of the cellular design infrastructure along the Georgia Tech 75/85 corridor and east Atlanta.
Q3: Please explain to us what sparked your interest in STEM?
A: My interest in STEM story really did not begin until around my 2nd-3rd year of high school. I went to an Atlanta Public High School, Joseph Charles Murphy High which became Alonzo A. Crim High School (named after the first Black superintendent of APS), who became an important mentor in my life. At Murphy we didn’t have a lot of advanced science and math courses, except for “gifted” students who eventually took chemistry, physics and Trig/pre- calculus. It was my gifted teachers in science and math that nurtured my interest and skills in STEM. My junior/senior year I was selected to participate in the Math competition in which I placed first and the option to compete at the state level was offered. I fell in love with math as early as Algebra. I still love math, I often tell my students that I see life in numbers, patterns, and formulas. I am constantly analyzing rooms and everyday social phenomena by the numbers.
Q4: Define how you’ve used STEM in your career in the past?
A: I’ve used science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in every career that I ever had. As a Radio Frequency design engineer with Sprint and AT&T, STEM was a part of my every day job of frequency design and cellular design. It was used in developing design plans to avoid interference, calculate power, analyze wireless data, determine location and placement, everything involved science, technology, engineering, and math. When I moved into academia and consulting it was the STEM tenets of critical problem solving, analysis, interpretation of numbers in large data sets, and system design (understanding the interconnected of elements within a system and how to design for specific outcomes) that became paramount. Even when assessing, designing, and developing social systems (such as diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in higher education) it is my STEM skills integrated with my ethics and justice skills from my theological education that I draw upon. Oh, and as a researcher, I use the scientific method of discovery and investigation in everything. Although, I am insistent upon a mixed method, data-driven, culturally acute approach.
Q5: Define how you use STEM in your current position?
A: In my current role, I use STEM to evaluate and assess systemic inequities and develop the appropriate equity solution. From data collection, to research, to analysis to design of student impacting initiatives, it is the STEM tenets of critical problem solving, analysis, interpretation of numbers in large data sets, and system design (understanding the interconnected of elements within a system and how to design for specific outcomes) and a team-based collaborative approach that distinguishes the work we do and the programs that we develop through OMED.
Q6: Express your experience as a Black person and a woman in the STEM arena?
A: I cannot separate these two (being Black and being a woman) because it is their intersectionality that is so significant to my experiences in the area of STEM (really in every area of life that involves institutionalized systems (academic, social, career, economic, political, family, etc.) that shape our lives). As a black woman from a low-income background, first- generation college student, the STEM space can be daunting. There are too few from my community in these spaces, not because of lack of skill or interest, but from years of restricted access and historic barriers that hindered Black women's involvement and success in STEM, especially leadership positions within STEM. So, when we persist and prevail into these spaces, you are often the only, the unfamiliar, the rarely seen, and the seldom encountered in STEM.
So, when asked about the experiences as a Black woman in STEM, we are really talking the experiences and encounters with the people and the policies, practices, and procedures people have created that shape what and how STEM functions. I have encountered all types of conversation and situations that turn into attacks of who I am and behaviors, rather than being about the work (of which they will applaud for its excellence). Instead of being valued for my uniqueness (and the unique repertoire I bring). I am often belittled, misunderstood, erroneously classified, and overlooked. Yet, to be honest, I decided long ago that my rareness, my difference, is a gift to STEM. It is like being the Tesla on a lot full of Lexus’s (barring any views on the leaders of these two automobiles industries, let’s focus on the technological invention and performance). Both may be great cars but there is a uniqueness that is to be valued between them. Now that I am 30 years into STEM and within STEM environments, I have noticed some things about the experiences of being Black and a women in STEM. The practice of many (even those who seek to “help” and support), is to assess trends of inequity (gaps in performance, position, enrollment, or persistence) in terms of individual insufficiency, inadequacies, and interests, rather than systemic and historic barriers in institutions policies, procedures, practices, and positions. If we want to see STEM in its best form, where people from all ethnicities and genders are able to contribute fully to STEM in environments that are equitable and inclusive (not homogenous and conforming), we will have to move to systemic change and reform in policies, practices, and positions across the entire STEM pipeline.
Q7: Express how rewarding your overall career path has been?
A: I am living my dream! Largely because, in part of my career path, I have enjoyed a rewarding life that was never expected of this inner-city kid. Some of your readers may be familiar with the movie Hidden Figures. I can honestly say since matriculating at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and entering the STEM arena, I have been surrounded by hidden figures. I’ve been surrounded by people that grind every day, doing astonishing work without proper acknowledgement, knowing that they are contributing towards something greater than themselves. People who hold positions that astonish most. The first in their family, and in their field, to do some of what they have accomplished (including little old me). I have been a senior design engineer at a top 100 telecommunication company. I have worked with research teams and academic leaders at top universities and at the national academies, I have traveled to over five continents, eight countries, and upwards of 30 plus states. I have managed multi-million- dollar budgets. I have worked in corporate, non-profit, and academia industries. I have served on boards, councils, and steering committees. I have been paid thousands of dollars to give 40- minute talks and share my knowledge. I have designed technological innovations and institutional programs that impact thousands. I have launched a research consulting business. I have won awards, fellowships, and grants. I am a published author and a scholar. I am a director at the top public research (and technological) university. STEM is connected to almost every aspect of human life in our current digital era (how we communicate, how we work, how we entertain, how we educate, how we develop cities/homes/communities, how we transport and travel, politics, religion, medical care, banking, and even our social life now with social media) it is deeply connected to who we are. That may be a little scary for some. It is exciting for me, because I have had a love and exploratory relationship with it for so long. It is a part of me. I have given relentlessly to it and it has rewarded me beyond my imagination. As nice as all of the above is, I must admit the most rewarding aspect of my career path are the students. They wow me! These brilliant, creative, diverse, caring people allow me to be a part of their journey. They seek me out. The hundreds of thank you notes, gifts, comments, hugs, and acts of kindness that I have received from them in these past four years alone, is a reward that I count as abundant and blessed.
Q8: Please give us a personal quote that provides motivation for you to accomplish your Goals?
A:" You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” ― Dr. Angela Davis
Q9: Please share with us your honors and awards?
A: I’m blessed to have been the recipient of many awards. Here are a few of which I am most proud:
The Southern Regional Education Board, Dissertation Fellowship, 2011-2012
Georgia Institute of Technology, President Fellowship, 2007 – 2012
Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Gender Equity Award
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts Distinguish Alumni, 2022
Georgia Tech Black Alumni Leaders and Legends, 2022
GT Office of Minority Education and Development, Doctoral Tower Award,
2014 Langston-Price Scholar 2013
Q10: What do you do for fun or self-care?
A: Spending time with family and friends, Church, Dance, food, travel, and movies.
Q11: For aspiring youth interested in STEM, what is the best educational path one can take to achieve a successful STEM career?
A: Get involved early (do campus, clubs, competitions, online opportunities, free STEM activities/groups). Get exposure to several STEM options before deciding which/if a STEM career is for you. Strengthen your interest and skills in science, math, computer science, innovation, problem solving (it is learned, and everyone can learn it). Make the most of where you are from k-12 towards STEM. If there is something your school does not offer, then reach out to people in the careers and spaces you aspire towards. However, when it comes to colleges, choose the “right “school for you. Consider the ROI and the career related aspects of your collegiate experience (internships, research, study abroad, innovation labs/entrepreneurial networks). The STEM options and paths that they provide. Maximize your opportunities. Don't tell yourself No yet be wise in your assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. All weaknesses can be strengthened with effort and intentionality.
Q12: Lastly, what do you think makes you a CELEBRITY BOSS in STEM?
A: Passion, position, and people who will join with you in fulfilling the vision, invention, and mission.